The Help ★★★★½
(USA, 137 min.)
Written and directed by Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson.
Book clubs everywhere shall rejoice, for The Help is an excellent adaptation of the beloved novel by Kathryn Stockett. Writer/director Tate Taylor smartly weaves together the rich narrative threads of the novel, retaining some crucial moments while altering or even excising others. The result is one that shares the provocative and heartrending message of its source, as well as its perfectly measured cadence and immaculate characterization. Taylor’s transposition of this year’s hottest read in fact exceeds its literary predecessor in many ways, thus making The Help one of the year’s very best films as well.
Starring as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the headstrong protagonist of The Help is Emma Stone. Stone is arguably far easier on the eye than Stockett’s prose suggests, yet the actress brings out the spunkiness and gawky gumption of her character. As seen in the opening frame of the film, Skeeter is a reporter: she is taking notes in the kitchen, listening to Aibileen (Viola Davis) who recounts her experience as a housekeeper to the white folks of Jackson in segregation era Mississippi. With little more than a wing and a prayer, Skeeter aims to write a novel that explores Southern living from the point of view of the help. Her prospective editor, Miss Stein (Mary Steenburgen), agrees to explore the idea, but only if Skeeter enlists a few maids. Fearful of the vehement racism of Jackson’s middle-upper class, Aibileen, the first of the help whom Skeeter propositions, initially declines to help Skeeter with her novel.
Concurrent with Skeeter’s attempt at civil progress is another race-related campaign. Skeeter’s childhood friend, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), begins the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, which encourages fellow Jackson residents to build separate bathrooms for their housekeepers in order to prevent the risk of Whites catching supposedly harmful diseases. Hilly’s efforts move along much more smoothly than do Skeeter’s, for Hilly is the queen bee of the Jackson’s Women’s league. With a mere flick of her wrist or a subtle but judgemental glance, Hilly commands the sheep of Jackson’s social circle. Skeeter, however, refuses to join the vapid flock and she ploughs through Hilly’s façade of progressive racism, seeing little difference between the Home Help campaign and Mississippi’s Jim Crow laws.
Hilly, moreover, is the spur to Skeeter’s novel. When Hilly’s help, Minny (played with delightful sass by Octavia Spencer), runs to the bathroom for an emergency, Hilly sends her packing. To make matters worse, Minny has a reputation as the best cook in Jackson, so Hilly maliciously brands Minny a thief to discourage her neighbours from hiring Minny themselves. Minny also has the worst temper in Jackson and she does something Terrible Awful to get even.
Hilly’s ongoing wrath eventually leads Aibileen to reciprocate Skeeter’s request. Not only is Aibileen Minny’s best friend, she is also one of the town’s quietly respected leaders. Soon, Aibileen and Minny give Skeeter a frank account on what it is like to raise a white child when one’s own children are at home with the grandparents. Aibileen’s testimony is particularly saddening, and Davis’s strong, multifaceted performance keeps the flame of her weary character alight even during Aibileen’s darkest moments. Davis, furthermore, takes back the 'Mammy' role that has plagued cinema since its early days and delivers Aibileen as a housekeeper who is more intelligent, complex, and sincere than any of the Jackson socialites. Davis takes Aibileen a step further by showing the audience how Aibileen must adapt and mask her true self behind a series of modest nods and self-effacing 'yes ma'ams'. It's a brilliant performance.
While Aibileen does not receive as much screen-time as Skeeter does, Taylor’s adaptation grants her noteworthy significance. While Stockett’s novel divides the focalisation between Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny – with Skeeter receiving the most dominant perspective, followed by Aibileen and then Minny – the film performs a dual act of shifting point of view. Skeeter remains the chief protagonist of The Help, receiving the majority of the screentime, yet Taylor restricts the narration purely to Aibileen’s point of view. The alteration is empowering, for the film tells the story from the perspective of the help. By privileging Aibileen’s thoughts, the film gives adequate voice to the plight of the help; moreover, the absence of a voiceover from Skeeter prevents one from making the erroneous (and ignorant) error of dismissing the film as simply another condescending tale in which a white woman does good.
Several other changes that Taylor makes are for the better. Of particular note is the film’s treatment of the secretive departure of Constantine, the maid who raised Skeeter and disappeared when Skeeter was away at college. As with the novel, Constantine’s departure remains the underlying mystery of The Help. In the film, viewers receive a few flashbacks that depict Skeeter’s fond memories with her friend, played with grace by Cicely Tyson. The film, however, alters the much-awaited reason for Constantine’s absence, yet Taylor’s revision grants the film a stronger emotional payoff and places cold judgement upon Skeeter’s mother (played by the consistently remarkable Allison Janney). Unlike the novel, the film leaves no room for justifying Charlotte’s actions. The change resonates more highly not only with the politics of the period, but also with the toxic relationships depicted in Jackson’s social circle.
Taylor also improves the ending of The Help by granting Aibileen some agency in her final encounter with Hilly. While Aibileen’s defiant retort might be less true to the politics of 1960’s Mississippi, the added response grants Aibileen a stronger character arc and shows how the book helps her regain confidence. This final encounter also offers Bryce Dallas Howard with a fine moment to convey silently Hilly’s fragile veneer of false confidence, thus giving the film’s villain an additional dimension. The only storyline of The Help that does not fare as well in the film is Skeeter’s flawed relationship with Stuart (Chris Lowell): it’s the only tiresome subplot in the novel and it might best have been disposed of altogether.
As with the aforementioned roster of figures from The Help, the rest of film/novel’s rich characters are rendered perfectly by the film’s uniformly excellent ensemble. Particularly worthy of praise is Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, the fast-dressing floozy who employs Minny after her dismissal. Chastain’s Celia is wildly unrecognizable from the earthly mother she portrayed in this year’s Tree of Life, not only in looks, but also in energy, demeanour, and voice (using the Southern drawl of Jolene). Chastain’s saucy fast-talker gives a vivacious jolt of life to The Help, and she makes Celia’s bubbly interactions with Minny among the film’s most memorable scenes. The film condenses the storyline between Celia and Minny significantly, yet thanks to the wonderful synergy between Chastain and Spencer, their relationship still reveals the cruel double standards of Jackson, as well as how strongly Minny internalizes the racial regulations. Rounding out the stellar supporting cast is Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s aging mother: the role is quite expanded from the novel and thankfully so, as Spacek is a hoot as Hilly’s senile foil.
In addition to the strong adaptation and flawless incarnations from the actors, The Help is assembled by an equally laudable creative department. Sharon Davis offers some vibrant costumes that grant a sense of time and place to the story, while composer Thomas Newman contributes a subdued but effective musical score. Sure to challenge anyone’s flawed preconception that the book is always better than the film, The Help is an excellent adaptation that allows one to appreciate both versions in their own right.
The Help opens in wide release August 10th.