Capitalizing on a loll in enticing summer theater fare, The Help offers a swell counter-programming alternative to filmgoers tired of the deluge of loud blockbusters. It's clearly struck a chord with audiences, hurtling Rise of the Planet of the Apes in its second week of release. In the interest of seeing what all the fuss is about, I took it in today and rifled off a brief review.
Fresh-faced college graduate and aspiring writer Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns to her Mississippi hometown of Jackson and is spurred by the old-fashioned racist attitudes of her peers to compose an exposing series of interviews with the community's black housemaids. Of course, finding willing interviewees among the apprehensive help proves a challenge, but she eventually makes an ally in the at-first reluctant Aibileen (Viola Davis), and their boat-rocking project discreetly lifts off.
Writer-director Tate Taylor has done a fine job of laying out Kathryn Stockett's bestseller for the screen, striking a nice balance between all the story's emotional beats and levity. Perhaps it yanks at the heartstrings a tad conspicuously at times, but the sincerity of the acting sells it well enough. Indeed, Taylor's real gift to this project is in his handling of the performances, each of which is sharply realized by a splendid cast:
Emma Stone, whose star continues to rise, is a magnanimous central presence, although the real lead of the piece is Viola Davis, whose subdued expressiveness communicates a great deal of fear and sadness. The supporting players are all ace. Octavia Spencer (a likely Oscar nominee for her work here) provides a well judged blend of comic “sass mouthin'” and dramatic heft. The ubiquitous Jessica Chastain bubbles with infectious eccentricity. Sissy Spacek is hilarious in a succinct minor role. Allison Janney, always a delight, nails her character arc and manages to exude levels of sympathy you wouldn't expect her character to deserve. And perhaps my favourite performance of the lot goes to Bryce Dallas Howard for taking up the thankless task of playing the waspish queen bee of Jackson's privileged elite. She shares a potent moment with Viola Davis at the end of the film that cuts straight to the bone.
It's a shame that a story as ultimately uplifting as The Help has to contend with the politics of our PC age. Those who condemn the film for depicting the empowerment of a minority thanks to the intervention of an enlightened white character are undermining its hopeful spirit, and missing out on a really well executed and enjoyable movie.
*** out of ****