on August 11, 2011
"Oscar season", as it's typically referred to, is a period of time, usually beginning in late November, and ending in late January. This year, it starts early, with "The Help".
"The Help" is based on the well-known novel by Kathryn Stockett, someone who I had never heard of before discovering this film and book. For the most part, when I hear about a film that I want to see, I try to read the book prior to viewing the movie, to enhance the whole experience. Usually I get bored, or stop mid-way through one of these said books, before I end up watching the movie.
But "The Help" grabbed me. Stockett kept me on a leash, dying to know what happened next, and I ended up finishing its 530 pages in a few sittings. And, I'm glad it did, because "The Help" is not only the best movie I've seen this summer, but it very well could be the best one I see all year.
The film centers on Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny (Davis, Stone and Spencer, respectively) three very different women in Mississippi, in the year 1962. Skeeter is returning from college with a journalism degree, whose beloved childhood black maid Constantine has disappeared, and no one will tell her where she has gone. Aibileen is a maid who has raised 17 white children in her life. The word "maid" is pretty blandly used. She's a nanny to these children, if not a surrogate mother. Her outspoken friend Minny has never been able to keep quiet, or, because of this, hold onto a job very long, and she is hired on the sly by Celia (Chastain), a white-trash rich girl who has some grave secrets of her own. Skeeter decides to write a tell-all book of interviews from the maids of Jackson, Mississippi, which, as you could imagine, was a very taboo, and perhaps even illegal thing to take on in the time of Jim Crow, and segregation.
One of the reasons that this film succeeds is that not a single character is miscast, and there is not a single caricature. In the book, Stockett paints a vivid picture of each character, and the actors clearly got lost in their characters. Emma Stone is becoming a very important actress. I haven't seen her in a role that I didn't love her in. After getting her first notable role in 2009's "Zombieland", and then livening and carrying the otherwise bland teen comedy "Easy A", this is her first dramatic role, as Skeeter, one of the lead characters. While she sometimes blends into the background in this movie, she shines beautifully with the rest of the cast. She's definitely one to watch.
While Stone is great, this movie belongs to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Davis's Aibileen is perfect. She has a silent sadness about her, a lot of pride, and a great sense of anger, her expressive eyes displaying a silent protest, while never raising her voice the whole film. She handles emotional scenes beautifully, reducing the audience to tears in more than one scene. She's a early in the year front-runner for Best Actress this Oscar season.
Spencer also does a beautiful job as Minny. Octavia Spencer was the original inspiration for the character of Minny, who voiced the character's section in the audio-book. She was clearly made to play this role. She does a lot more for this movie, than just adding comic relief, however, she does plays the comedic side the best. The "terrible awful" that her character does in the book, is made into the funniest thing in the whole movie.
The supporting cast is dead-on too. Bryce Dallas Howard plays the town's snobby ringleader, Hilly. She's absolutely chilling, nailing the evil character. Her mother, played by Sissy Spacek is a hoot. The town's secretive lush, and Minny's boss, Celia, is played by scene-stealing newcomer Jessica Chastain, who wowed earlier this year in "The Tree of Life". She was completely like I envisioned her character in the book. Chastain would be perfect to play Marilyn Monroe. Just saying. There's not enough typing space in this review to describe how much I loved the rest of the supporting cast. Everyone was dead-on.
I was under the assumption that this would be yet another disappointing film of a book loved by many. The reason for this was the director and writer. I had never heard of this Tate Taylor, and because of that, I wasn't sure that I trusted him. He had a large part in making this movie all that it was. One of the big reasons that "The Help" works as a movie is because it feels authentic. It was filmed in Mississippi, where it's based, it is set in the 1960's, and every feeling about the movie hits the right note.
I later discovered that Taylor was a childhood friend of the book's author. Not some Hollywood hack. I forget the many disappointing film adaptations of books I loved that were made by the Hollywood elite. "The Da Vinci Code" by Ron Howard, "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Rob Marshall, "Eat, Pray, Love" by Ryan Murphy. Enough said. After seeing this film, I couldn't imagine anyone better-suited to making the film.
What is special about this film is that it is not what a lot of people will probably write it off as. It's not a film designed to make audiences feel less "white guilt", and it isn't about how black folks need white ones to succeed. It's about good-hearted people wanting to make a change to a world that is unjust. It avoids the usual sentimentality and melodrama that typically plagues this kind of film. I don't know how, but it succeeds in that, like I thought it wouldn't.
While some changes are (intelligently) made from the book, it's almost a scene-for-scene adaptation of the book. Some things are different, because they need to be, and things are a little more concise, yet it's almost like watching an abridged version of the book, onscreen. It will stir up emotions in you that you didn't know you had. At the ending of this film, in a packed house, there was a thunderous applause. Almost everyone in the theater stayed seated through out the ending credits. I cannot remember a time where a movie evoked such emotion from its audience, that it wasn't until after the credits had ended that people actually started walking out. This is gripping stuff. Don't miss it.