Davis, Spencer, and Stone make this movie sing.

The Help

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis



            The Help is a wonderfully complicated movie. Directed and adapted by Tate Taylor from Kathryn Stockett's novel, it captures the domestic culture of the affluent South just as the civil rights era began. But right there the complications begin. In dealing with a privileged society whose matrons and daughters hew to an exacting code of social competition, the story presents us with a rigid class and racial structure that flourished in the pre-1960s South.
            Is it possible that even in the '60s North and South could still be so different one hundred years after the Civil War? Yes. Could Mississippi society matrons have believed, in the shadow of the murder of Medgar Evers, that because they ladled out to their maids a patronizing kindness along with condescension that nothing whatsoever was wrong with the system? Yes again. While living in Washington D.C. in 1951, a southern friend professed astonishment at my question and replied, "But you just don't understand loyalty. The loyalty went both ways." A job given, a job well done. Any one of these themes mishandled could have turned the film into parody, but instead, look what happens: a trio of terrific actors navigates the potential pitfalls with grace.
            Skeeter Phelan ( Emma Stone) has come home from Ole Miss with a hankering to become a journalist. The hankering soon turns to determination to tell the story of the society around her. In an extremely perceptive performance, Emma Stone conveys Skeeter's awareness that she could ruin the lives of the black women she has approached for their stories. And do you remember Viola Davis in Doubt? Here, she is at once the anchor and the air. In a performance of great dignity she plays Aibileen, the first of the help to agree to work with Skeeter. Octavia Spencer creates Aibleen's friend Minny, a brave and unforgettable character who repeatedly reaches her personal point of no return.
            Bryce Dallas Howard is Hilly - the awful, hollow Junior Leaguer scratching to hold onto the top rung of her social ladder, terrified of making a social misstep. If I hadn't known several of her I would say Howard overacted. There is fine support from Jessica Chastain as an ostracized outsider, from Allison Janney and Cicely Tyson - some in mightily unsympathetic parts. And watch Sissy Spacek as Missus Walters as she finally revels in the awful irony that is her daughter's lifeblood.
            But it is the towering work, shot through with humor but deeply serious, of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer that finally makes us understand that the underpinning of this kind of a society was rooted in ownership - of one human being by another. Their story here, of those who rule and those who serve, is a footnote to the convulsion overtaking them in the '60s. Faced with a story about cultural traditions that took too long to die, Davis, Spencer, and Stone make this movie sing.

 


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