'The Help' (PG-13) (3 1/2 STARS)
Writer: Tate Taylor based on novel by Kathryn Stockett
Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Ahna O'Reilly, Mike Vogel, Anna Camp, Cicely Tyson, Brian Kerwin
"The Help" surprised the hell out of me because it keeps getting stronger and I didn't expect to have such a great time. I groaned a little during the beginning because there were too many Southern stereotypes but by the last hour I was moved. I also had such a great time seeing so many strong female roles and some of the best ensemble acting of the year by amazing actresses.
The movie is based on a very popular novel written by Kathryn Stockett and I have not read it. I don't know if the book is stronger but I felt some of the writing in the movie was shallow in the beginning. The writing gets much better as the movie moves along and the acting makes the characters deeper and make the movie greater. The movie tells the story of Skeeter played by the very in demand Emma Stone. She strikes up a friendship with two black maids and starts to write an expose on how the help are treated by their rich monster clients.
The movie starts out too cute and I was fearing that this would be a light as air, quirky trifle. The movie gets serious as the two maids take center stage and that is when the movie starts to soar. The first maid, Abileen Clark is the first voice in Skeeter's expose. Minny Jackson is the comic relief and she is fired by a rich and mean woman named Hily Holbrook. Both maids want to be part of Skeeter's story which will expose the abuse these women take.
Now Skeeter is the primary character but to me the least interesting one. I have been gushing about Emma Stone lately and she is good here but I am glad she was not the main voice of the movie. I haven't read the book but the movie is driven by and given it's power not from Skeeter but from Abigail and Minny. I feel that Skeeter is just the mouthpiece for the story and I didn't care much about her relationship with her mother. Strangely sometimes I felt that Skeeter could have been dropped from the story all together.
The Skeeter character didn't take away from my enjoyment of the movie and I actually am very happy that Skeeter wasn't much of a factor. This could have been one of those white people save the black people and give them a voice movie. It isn't and I think the writing is strong here because Abigail is the true voice of the movie and she is an amazing character I will never forget. She narrates some of the movie and she is the guiding force of this movie.
There is also a wonderful antagonist for Abigail and Minny in Hily Holbrook. This is a delightfully nasty woman and villain for "The Help" to have. Next to Abigail and Minny this is the strongest written character. She gives this movie a wonderful obstacle for the help to overcome. The second half of the movie keeps getting stronger and I was swept up in the conflicts and drama. This becomes a classic women's picture and a very strong Southern potboiler. I was moved by Abigail's struggle and her finding her voice. There is also another strong subplot with another memorable character that I will never forget. She is Celia Foote and she is a life force and the third strongest character next to Abigail and Hily.
Another reason the movie gets stronger is due to the amazing acting by veteran actresses and some new actresses that will now become stars based on this movie. Viola Davis is one of our best actresses and her performance as Abigail is powerful and quietly so. Bryce Dallas Howard will no longer be known as Ron Howard's daughter. Her performance as Hily is makes what could have been a stereotypical villain into a deep and complicated woman. She gives a powerful performance and creates an evil and vain woman that Hannibal Lector would love. There is a powerful showdown at the end between Hily and Abigail that will cement Howard and Davis Oscar nominations. Jessica Chastain gives a breakout performance as Celia. She is funny and charming and makes you fall in love with her goofy and strange character.
There are also great performances especially by Octavia Spencer who is very funny and bold as Minny. You also have the great Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek having fun and the legendary Cicely Tyson making a small impact. The male characters could be a weakness here but I didn't care, I was too wrapped up in the women. You notice I didn't mention my favorite Emma Stone
because her role is the least interesting but she is fine as always.
I loved this movie more and more as it reached it's conclusion and it got stronger for me. I had so much fun watching great performances by great actresses and watching full blooded female characters. This is what I would call a women's picture and not a chick flick. Let's retire that debasing description and call this kind of picture a women's picture. I am not used to strong female charactars being on screen. I am usually used to the shallow and thankless roles women are given these days.
This is a movie I think men would like even though women will drive this picture to success. The men I saw it with were laughing in the right spots and seemed to enjoy it. It is a crowd pleasing movie and there is a very shocking and funny scene near the end that brought the house down. I never understood why men who are into women wouldn't want to watch a movie about women. Oh well, "The Help" is one of the best movies of 2011 and of the summer. What a breath of fresh air!