In racially divided 1960s Jackson, Mississipi, Aibileen (Viola Davis) is a middle-aged African-American maid who has spent her life raising white children, and who has recently lost her only son. Minny (Octavia Spencer) is another African-American maid whose confrontational manner results in her having to frequently change jobs. 'Skeeter' (Emma Stone) is a young white woman and recent college graduate who moves back home to discover that the maid who helped raise her since childhood has gone. When she gets a job on the local paper writing a home care column, she needs the practical advice of a housemaid and turns to Aibileen and Minny - which leads her to start secretly collecting stories about the lives of the help in Jackson, a subversive activity with significant repercussions.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Skeeter (Emma Stone), an ordinary young white female from Jackson, Mississipi, in the early 1960s, doesn't realise she is a revolutionary.
But she's not alone. Joining her are the help who provide the most important yet least valued services to the racist families of Jackson. They raise the children, first and foremost, and look after the households' daily needs.
The Help brings together several themes that are not in themselves new to us but bear repeating often, especially when told with such sensitivity on one hand and power on the other. Importantly, we see that we can all promote change for the better as individuals; not groups or governments, not organisations nor committees. One individual can drive change that makes a difference to many.
The other big theme is the proposition that words, writing, books, can have a bigger impact than fists or guns. This latter proposition is borne out by the true story that inspires the film, the story of Minny Jackson, played with great courage and warmth by Octavia Spencer. Author Kathryn Stockett took her story and gave it a platform in her book, which in turn led to this film.
The film shows us the society of 1960s Jackson, a provincial town where small things count for a lot. Social jostling for prominence and religion are the main vehicles, and hypocrisy is rampant. These white gloved ladies whose servants are treated with no respect are the same ones who hold benefits to raise money for African children. It's neat and simple piece of satire that has as much relevance today as ever.
It's not just Skeeter who makes a major journey, though, nor just the black maids, either. Skeeter's mother, played with great complexity and courage by Allison Janney, also completes an emotional journey with great payoff for the audience, as does Hilly Holbrook, a rigorous performance from Bryce Dallas Howard. Jessica Chastain leaves a big impression as Celia Foote, who makes a transition from hapless bimbo to proud heroine with plenty of stumbles along the way.
The film's heart is as much carried by a superb Viola Davis as Aibileen, who narrates the story for us, as it is by Stone's vulnerable yet determined Skeeter. The venerable Cicely Tyson has few scenes (as Skeeter's much loved nanny) but she breaks our hearts and Sissy Spacek is a sheer delight as Missus Walters, a drink-in-the-hand thorn in the side of Charlotte, Skeeter's mum.
We shouldn't forget the male characters, either, although they are few and play smaller roles in the drama. They may be small roles, but they are absolutely essential to the portrayal of this community. Both Mike Vogel as Johnny Foote and Chris Lowell as Stuart the potential love interest for Skeeter, make major contributions with very little screen time. The latter is an especially well observed character, always surprising us.
It's a sobering film in that it confronts us with the striking truth that within our own memories, life was like that in much of the South. Segregation was normal. Coloureds were one step up from slavery in their status - and not a big step, either. Brief glimpses of black and white TV news brings it all back, including the funeral service for the assassinated President Kennedy.
The film is set in that political environment and that period of American history, but it speaks to us about the universal truths of humanity; there are many other forms of social injustice that are rife today and need to be weeded out. Ignorance breeds anger and resentment, we can see that, and the film's great success is that the decent characters are just as flawed as the bigots, just in a different, less hateful way.
Superb performances from the entire cast deliver an emotionally complete and satisfying film, with all the departments working beautifully in tandem, from design and music to cinematography and editing. This is mature cinema with something to say and plenty of entertaining ways to say it.
First published in the Sun-Herald
Review by Louise Keller:
Offering a different perspective on life in the 60s, this beautifully observed and inspiring film looks at life from the point of view of the black women who take care of the homes of their white employers and even more importantly raise their children. Adapted from Kathryn Stockett's novel, it's the story of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a domestic help and nanny to a family in Jackson, Mississippi, where racial discrimination is the norm.
As the story's catalyst Skeeter (Emma Stone) discovers when she returns to her hometown and sees life through fresh eyes, it takes courage to tell the truth. What is life really like from the point of view of 'the help' who are treated as second class citizens with no recourse? As the truth unravels, we see life from all points of view. It's an engrossing glimpse into a world on the brink of change as the civil rights movement begins its march; a powerful human story filled with raw emotion, comic revelation and of how words can trigger actions and prompt explosive change.
When Skeeter is given a job at the local Jackson newspaper to write a cleaning advice column for housewives, she asks for help from Aibileen, the domestic who works for one of her friends. That's when Skeeter gets the idea to write the story that has never been told - from the point of view of Aibileen and others like her. 'What if you don't like what I say about white people?' she asks Skeeter suspiciously before being reassured it doesn't matter what Skeeter thinks; she is simply the conduit.
Director Tate Taylor, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kathryn Stockett, captures the ambiance and mood with great delicacy, perfectly describing the well-heeled, coiffed women a la Jackie Kennedy, who lunch, play bridge and support African children charities, although little charity is shown at home. Although the help takes care of everyone's most precious possession - their children - the consensus is that she should be kept at arm's length and never to use their bathroom - because blacks carry different diseases.
Stone is a breath of fresh air as Skeeter, whose head of corkscrew curls is a sharp contrast to the sleek, smooth styles of her friends, as she cuts through the superficiality around her. Unlike her friends for whom marriage has been their top priority, Skeeter's priority is to write. Davis gives a powerful, solid performance as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer is a scene stealer as the irrepressible Minny Jackson whose crunchy fried chicken is to die for and whose famed chocolate pie plays a prominent and unforgettable role. It is the interaction between these three characters as they forge a bond and dare to defy convention and the law that forms the emotional hub of the story.
Bryce Dallas Howard is dastardly good as the patronising, despicable Hilly Holbrook and Jessica Chastain unforgettable as Celia Foote, the outcast who can't cook, has some of the film's best scenes. An impact is also made by Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek who play two mothers whose actions speak louder than words.
All the production values are excellent and the 60s music swings and twists just like the plot points in the narrative. I was profoundly moved by this story whose many layers conceal a powerhouse of emotion as they reveal universal truths.
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HELP, THE (M)
CAST: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Mike Vogel, Mary Steenburger, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Anna Camp, Chris Lowell, Octavia Spencer, Ahna O'Reilly Aunjanue Ellis, Cicely Tyson
PRODUCER: Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, Brunson Green
DIRECTOR: Tate Taylor
SCRIPT: Tate Taylor (novel by Kathryn Stockett)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Stephen Goldblatt
EDITOR: Hughes Winborne
MUSIC: Thomas Newman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Mark Ricker
RUNNING TIME: 146 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: DreamWorks through Walt Disney
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 1, 2011