There have been two films I've seen recently that help make the case for Academy voters to add an ensemble award to their list of categories. Warrior, with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton in the lead, and The Help easily justify the inclusion of a Best Ensemble Oscar. So get on it Academy members and add the category every other awards body already has - a category which honors the work of the whole rather than singling out one performance as the best of the best.
The Help's not the sort of film we're used to getting the opportunity to see in August, and coming off what's been a fairly lackluster summer filled with disappointing big-budget effects films, it's a breath of fresh air. The heavy, thought-provoking subject matter shouldn't deter adult audiences from heading to theaters to check it out, although the issues it deals with could turn some potential ticket buyers off. To that I suggest those who haven't read the book put aside their preconceptions and allow the film to work its magic.
Stockett's book is set in Jackson, Mississippi (with the film shot in Greenwood, Mississippi) and follows Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate of Ole Miss with ambitions of being a writer. A high-powered New York publisher suggests she concentrate her writing efforts on finding something new and fresh - and something that deserves attention - and Skeeter quickly finds her book's subject matter.
Returning to Jackson, Skeeter reunites with her lifelong friends and instantly realizes their racist points of view are no longer something she can tolerate. Skeeter attempts to remain friends with these women who spend their days playing bridge and gossiping, but it's their black maids who Skeeter really wants to connect with. These faceless, voiceless women have been raising the children of their white employers for decades, only to have those very same children grow up to treat them with disdain and contempt. Skeeter knows there's a story there, but putting pen to paper with the Jim Crow Laws looming large over any interaction between blacks and whites could mean public disgrace or even jail time.
Despite the risk, Aibileen (Viola Davis) agrees to contribute her story to Skeeter's book. Aibileen's story alone could fill chapters, however the NY publisher wants more maids to contribute in order to consider the book for publication. At Aibileen's urging, the out-spoken Minny (Octavia Spencer) joins this secret project, followed in time by other maids employed by Skeeter's friends and family associates. As they pour out their stories, Skeeter's book becomes more than just a writing project for the would-be journalist and transitions into a life-altering experience for all of the brave women who put their lives on the line in order to finally be heard.
Writer/director Taylor has assembled an amazing group of women to fill out his cast, with each character brought to life via stunning performances. Led by Emma Stone as the frizzy-haired young woman who no longer subscribes to group-think, The Help offers up some of the best performances by actresses in 2011. Stone's pitch-perfect as Skeeter, a difficult role that's a stretch from her past performances. Known mostly for tackling comedies, Stone demonstrates the vulnerability, earnestness and strength of character that make Skeeter such an interesting character, and her performance further proves why she's so sought after by filmmakers.
Oscar-nominee Viola Davis' Aibileen is exactly as she is on page, with Davis soulfully portraying this woman who lost her only son in a horrible accident but who refuses to give up on life. Octavia Spencer's Minny punches up the film, bringing the same sassiness to the character that Stockett described so well in her book. Look for Spencer's performance as well as Davis' to be mentioned when it comes to awards voting time.
Bryce Dallas Howard is delicious as the villainous Hilly Holbrook, the ringleader of the group and a hateful woman whose goal in life is to make sure whites and blacks never use the same toilet. As Hilly, Howard's smile masks a viperous tongue that spews forth poisonous vitriol. Howard doesn't go over-the-top with her take on the film's villain while still making the audience loathe this vindictive social climber. Equally entertaining is Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, a poor girl who marries well and is ostracized by Hilly's group. In the book, Celia's a Marilyn Monroe-ish character with a big heart and big boobs. And Chastain, who looks nothing like Stockett's Celia in real life, absolutely captures the complicated character on the screen.
The Bottom Line
The Help could have made the transition to the big screen differently than how Taylor chose to adapt the story, with Taylor's choice of shifting some of the focus off of Skeeter's point of view and onto Aibileen's and his choice to soften some of the intense and disturbing demonstrations of racism making the film less hard-hitting than Stockett's work. In that regard, the movie does let the book audience down a bit. However, what Taylor and his cast have accomplished is, character development-wise, one of the most faithful adaptations of a bestselling novel of the past decade. Yes, pages had to be lost - that's to be expected with any adaptation - and minor storylines are either ignored or relegated to very limited screen time. More of Skeeter and Stuart's tumultuous romantic relationship could have helped to pump up Skeeter's backstory, but it also would have meant increasing the running time. And at 137 minutes, The Help is already pushing it.
The sets and costumes are first-rate, the accents and mannerisms are in keeping with the area and the era, and the make-up and hairdos (how much hairspray did women use to keep those things in place?) remind us why revisiting those styles from '60s is not necessarily a good thing. Watching the film is like taking a step back through time to the Deep South of the 1960s. Every element of the film screams authenticity, from the bridge party set ups to the obvious dividing line between the upper and middle class white neighborhoods and the homes of the black maids.
The Help is a first rate production all around. Tackling a difficult subject matter without coming across as preachy, writer/director Tate and his talented ensemble do readers of the book proud. And for the uninitiated, they introduce and deliver a story that's both honest and entertaining.
The Help was directed by Tate Taylor and is rated PG-13 for thematic material.
Theatrical Release: August 10, 2011