Review in a Hurry: An entertaining adaptation of Kathryn Stockett‘s bestseller, this early ’60s, Mississippi-set dramedy follows three seemingly different women writing one tell-all book about black maids working for white families. Despite some Hollywood touches, The Help gets big help from its solid cast, namely Viola Davis.
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The Bigger Picture: Fans of the beloved novel should be (mostly) pleased. Navigating the book’s shifting points of view, the film faithfully covers the major story points, though in doing so—as with many adaptations—sometimes skims the emotional resonance and details beneath those beats. Still, like Southern fried cooking, there’s a mess o’ stuff to savor, y’all.
Reliably strong Davis plays Aibileen, the loving but long-suffering maid who develops an unlikely bond with white socialite Skeeter (Emma Stone). A recent college grad with journalistic ambitions, Skeeter pitches a book proposal to a New York editor—a collection of revealing stories told from the perspectives of black “help.”
With a smidgen of encouragement, Skeeter attempts to find any black maids in Jackson who will talk to her. But they’re too scared of the racist repercussions—unemployment or, worse, physical harm. Aibileen finally agrees to be interviewed, as does headstrong Minny (Octavia Spencer), who was recently fired by haughty debutante Hilly (steely Bryce Dallas Howard).
The book and film’s emotional core is Aibileen. Davis powerfully embodies this character who somehow faces unspeakable personal tragedy and a lifetime of social injustice with unwavering faith. Stone, too, is stellar as the plucky, progressive Skeeter, but Spencer, though adequately sassy and outspoken, never conveys Minny’s deep well of bitterness and rage.
Screenwriter-director Tate Taylor, a Jackson native, has a clear understanding of Southern culture and manages to stitch together the many patches of this crazy quilt, even if some pieces don’t fit perfectly. But his visual style is too golden-sunny and colorful for the subject’s darker undertones.
Although flawed, the well-acted Help is like a cooling drink during these dog days at the multiplex, overheated by raunched-out comedies and bombastic superheroes. So help yourself.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Allison Janney is miscast as Skeeter’s mom, and her final-reel face-off with Hilly, which veers from the novel, is as forced as Janney’s accent.
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