Most stories aren’t original. While the locations, era and characters may be different, the core of most stories never evolve beyond what has already been told. In many cases, it’s a detriment to the film because we, the movie going public, want more. But sometimes, a story is so important, so significant, so thoughtful that we don’t mind seeing and hearing it again. This week’s touching film, The Help, explores racism and hatred towards African Americans in the 60’s south and though its message is no different than many that have come before, it remains a good one and works as a reminder that we should love and respect everybody regardless of their differences.
The film takes place in Mississippi where friends Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) work for a couple of white families as their housemaids. They are bossed around and treated like lesser beings simply because of their skin color, despite the love and care they put into raising those neglectful families’ kids. In their neighborhood, whites and blacks are expected not to mix. Public places are segregated and a bill is about to pass that will require all homes to have a “colored” bathroom just for the help. It’s an unhappy place for Aibileen and Minny, until they meet Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who recognizes what they go through. She has just graduated from college and aspires to be a journalist, so she offers to write a story from the perspective of the help. It’s a dangerous venture for the housemaids, but they’ve put up with abuse all their lives and decide they aren’t going to stand for it anymore.
The Help, as familiar as it can be at times, is an important film to watch. It’s not always pleasant and is certain to bring tears to many who view it, but we need to keep these past events close in our thoughts. As philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” A more truthful sentiment has never been uttered, especially given the state of dogmatism we face even today. While certainly not to the same extent, the condemnation of groups in the past parallels certain cases today, especially with the rampant intolerance for homosexuals (a parallel The Help seems to recognize, taking the time to quickly mock those who ignorantly think there’s a cure for homosexuality). Though set in the 60’s, it’s relevant to our times and works as a duality: as a reminder and as a cry for change.
Still, I’d be lying if I said The Help was anything more than a piece of fluff. It’s a crowd pleaser, unconcerned with crafting a tight, smooth flowing story or any critical backlash. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t make for the most structured movie. It’s a long film, well over two hours, but real drama doesn’t begin to build until its back half. It attempts to mash it all together at one time, which isn’t an effective substitute for a thoughtful, slow build throughout. The parts that do work, however, are weakened by unnecessary (and sometimes sickening) scenes, like when one of the maids bakes her feces into a pie and watches her old boss eat it. If in a gross-out comedy, this moment would be lambasted by critics everywhere (as it should be); it’s only fair for it to happen here too. But at least in those movies, it’s a one-time affair. In The Help, numerous plot turns actually stem from the poo pie scene. While watching, you can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers couldn’t come up with something less childish to keep their story moving.
That thought comes to mind because the movie is anchored by an impressive cast; such a scene seems desperate. They do what they can, though, and what they can do is deliver performances that rank among the best of the year. While Octavia Spencer is delightful and Emma Stone skillfully breaks away from her comedic typecasting while retaining her charm and innocence, it’s Viola Davis who impresses the most. Even with a dramatically uneven screenplay, she manages to bring forth feeling with ease. Every quiver of the lip and tear that rolls down her cheek hits hard; it might make you forget how inconsequential her sadness sometimes is to the story. The movie she’s in might not be great, but she is and deserves an Oscar nomination come awards season.
The biggest problem with The Help is that its subject matter is so heavy, but its handling is a little too light. It’s peppered with humor throughout, some of which admittedly works, but it rarely feels imperative, hitting a strange middle ground opposite the drama without ever hitting a good balance. The underdeveloped romance for Stone only makes matters worse; you’ll forget she’s even in a relationship before it comes to an end.
The Help suffers from all these things and more, including what I like to call “Lord of the Rings syndrome,” coming to a seeming conclusion multiple times before moving ahead another 20 minutes. It may be an ordinary movie, but it nevertheless tells an extraordinary story. That’s why, in spite of its faults, it’s still well worth checking out.
The Help receives 3.5/5