‘The Help’ Review: Well acted but spread too thin

“The Help,” a film about 1960s southern racism, can resonate with all generations. If you grew up with a live-in babysitter or part-time nanny, you’ll love the relationship between maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) and toddler Mae Mobley. If you’re a career-driven, unmarried female who has had to justify having no romantic prospects, you’ll identify with the film’s heroine, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone).

Based off Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling 2009 novel, “The Help” movie follows Skeeter’s post-graduate life as she moves back home to Jackson, Mississippi. The 23-year-old woman finishes college with an enlightened perspective on race and equality, so she struggles to relate to her intolerant childhood friends, many of whom have gotten hitched and popped out babies.

One pal in particular, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) will stop at nothing to distance herself from blacks. Hilly forces her full-time servant to use an outdoor restroom because she believes African Americans carry diseases and germs that harm whites. This doesn’t go over well with Hilly’s first maid Minny, who uses her boss’s personal toilet during a deadly tornado because it’s too dangerous to step outside. This of course gets Minny fired, so the sassy maid storms out of the house in the pouring rain and goes to work for Celia Foote, a dim-witted but well-meaning housewife. The Bridge Club and gossip girls of the town campaign against Celia for tying the knot with Hilly’s former flame, so the lonely pariah turns to uninterested Minny for company and advice. Minny, who has been poisoned with bitterness and resentment, takes a while to warm  up to the flighty, non-resourceful blond, but takes pity on isolated Celia and accepts her friendship.

The story centers on Skeeter, an aspiring journalist/author who lands a writing position at the Jackson Journal. Though she’s responsible for a cleaning advice column, Skeeter wants to expose southern racism in a tell-all book, so she tries to convince the maids to take interviews. They’re skeptical at first but quickly agree to share their life stories with Skeeter, who sends her findings to a publisher in New York City. Meanwhile, Skeeter has to hide her aspirations and work from Hilly and former friends, as they’ll ostracize her for rejecting groupthink.

Each and every character is so complex that I can’t decide which aspects of their personality to focus on. For one, Skeeter repeatedly has to explain to her former beauty queen mother why it’s impossible to find a nice man to date. Skeeter does meet a guy in the movie, but it’s clear she deserves better and will find someone nicer when she eventually relocates to New York City. I found the relationship inclusion a bit forced and unnecessary, especially since the movie merely scratches the surface of so many themes and characters.

The movie, which cuts out significant details from the book, runs a bit too long and has too much going on. You like all the characters but don’t have time to assess all their experiences. I could write pages and pages about the unfair manner in which Hilly treats her new maid, who asks for a loan so both her boys can attend college, but like most instances of injustice, this conflict goes unresolved. There’s hope for other characters in the movie, but not all.

I adored the relationship between sufferer-in-silence Aibileen and 2-year-old Mae Mobley, who can’t seem to master potty training as a result of parental neglect and apathy. If you were raised with an awesome nanny, you’ll appreciate the dynamic between Aibileen and Mae Mobley, who prefers the maid to her own parents.

“The Help” is well acted by its cast. Emma Stone plays a braver Skeeter than the novel’s version, Viola Davis portrays a woman who gets on with  life and prioritizes others even though she has lost everything and would rather die than exist another moment without her deceased teenage son, and Bryce Dallas Howard paints a chilling portrait of a manipulative, racist busybody. Sissy Spacek plays Hilly’s delirious mother who is disappointed with the way her close-minded daughter turned out. Allison Janney did a fine job as Skeeter’s high maintenance parent who wishes her child could be like all the other girls.

“The Help” surpassed my expectations and might be one of the best dramas of 2011, so I recommend checking out the film’s sunny southern scenes to escape the painful reality that summer’s days are numbered.


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