Review: The Help

This review originally appeared on Cinedelphia.com.

When Tate Taylor set out to write his screenplay for The Help, he must have been nervous. Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular novel not only has a loyal fan base but a lot of detractors who felt they were being spoon-fed yet another story about helpless black victims and their selfless white savior a la The Blind Side. But The Help transcends such definitive lines in the sand by creating a story that focuses on individual characters navigating the complex and ultimately interdependent relationships between black maids and white socialites.

There are so many rich characters in this story, and subsequently more plot lines, that it can be hard to pinpoint precisely who this film is about. Perhaps it’s Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan’s (Emma Stone) story. An aspiring journalist and recent college graduate, Skeeter returns home to Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s to find that being a college educated woman doesn’t get you in any closer with the ladies at Bridge club. It also puts pressure on an already strained relationship with your mother whose only wish is to see you married. She is plucky though, and lands a job at the Jackson Journal writing a cleaning advice column.

Or maybe it’s Aibileen Clark’s (Viola Davis) story, she does narrate the entire film. Aibileen is a maid in Elizabeth Leefolt’s home, where her primary job is to raise Elizabeth’s little girl. One of the interesting subtexts running through this film is the notion that part of being a member of the married social elite in Jackson (and I assume elsewhere in the South) is having children, but not necessarily raising them. Like little puppies in designer carriers, children are merely accessories needed to paint a picture of southern societal bliss, the more beautiful the better. Aibileen’s little charge is all but dismissed by Elizabeth because of her heftier-than-desired stature, leaving Aibileen to instill in the child a sense of worth I imagine she herself questions on more than one occasion. We see that Aibileen all but raises this child as her own, and consequently, the moments between Aibileen and the little girl are among the most heartbreaking in the film.

Regardless of whether the film is about these two women, or the other superb characters in the supporting cast, it is certain that the film addresses the unique relationship between them. When Skeeter gets the idea to write a book from the maids’ perspective she is met with fear from Aibileen and downright hostility from the other maids who are suspicious of her motives. Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) is particularly wary. As the former maid to Jackson’s social “Queen Bee” Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Minny certainly has dirt to dish but doesn’t want to be taken advantage of by the willful Skeeter. But as racial tensions heighten in Jackson, Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids begin to realize that now more than ever their voice needs to be heard.

The partnership between Skeeter and the maids is the quintessential model for the interdependence of white and black women that permeates the entire movie. The maids need Skeeter’s help in getting their stories out and Skeeter needs the stories in order to get published, but at no point is Skeeter the owner of this project. Although Skeeter asks the questions, the maids, in particular Minny, orchestrate the conversation. Because their safety is most at risk they dictate not only the time and place of their meetings, but what is to be documented and how it is presented. From the moment each interview begins Skeeter simply becomes a pen and paper. The maids clearly run the show. The process ends up being a very cathartic experience for Skeeter, who actually contributes her own story about Constantine Jefferson, the maid who raised her and was her closest confidant when her own mother was distant. We see Constantine, played by the luminous Cicely Tyson, in a series of poignant flashbacks throughout the movie.

What began as a purely self-serving endeavor for Skeeter becomes a great source of strength for herself and the maids, in particular Aibileen and Minny. I don’t doubt that Aibileen and Minny weren’t aware of their inner strength or the knowledge that they had something important to say. What they lacked was the means of getting people to listen. In the end, Skeeter did not give these women their voices, she gave them an audience.

The Help is the most significant film production set in Mississippi since Oh Brother Where Are Thou?, and Taylor creates a film that never once makes a parody of its environment or its characters. The performances in this film are nothing short of brilliant, with Oscar buzz already thick in the air. Octavia Spencer is delightful as Minny bringing with her sharp wit and pitch-perfect comedic timing. Bryce Dallas Howard is too perfect as villain Hilly Holbrook, everything down to her sweet-as-pie expressions of contempt make the audience love to hate her. Viola Davis brings the heart of the film as Aibileen, and Sissy Spacek steals every scene as the slightly loopy Mother Holbrook. And I think it is safe to say that Emma Stone has successfully navigated her way to serious dramatic actor, proving she is a force to be reckoned with in the future.

Taylor assumes that the memory of the Civil Rights Movement lingers for most, so in terms of historical backdrop we only get brief snapshots that tie us to any particular timeline, namely the assassinations of Medgar Evers and JFK. I would have enjoyed more time and place descriptors, but for a two and a half hour movie, it’s all about the characters, and their development. And given the tapestry of beautiful personalities we are given in The Help, I am more than satisfied.

Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. is a refreshing romantic comedy. I say refreshing because it may be the first romantic comedy in a while that 1) I would recommend my mom watch it, and 2) I could actually stay in the same room while she does so. There is no gross out humor, no misplaced raunch, and while I enjoyed Bridesmaids as much as anybody, it’s a nice change of pace to have a film be so relentlessly good natured.

Not that the film is all hugging and brunches, mind you. The characters definitely go through their trials, and the central question of the film is: “What are you willing to do once you’ve met your soulmate?” There are a lot of films that center around characters discovering their soulmate, and then it’s roll credits. This film takes a look at relationships across three generations, and does a good job representing all of those, with a couple of twists and turns along the way.

Where the film really shines though is in the performances. Steve Carell is well casted as Cal, the main character, as he is mostly just doing a more grown-up, reserved version of his shtick. It suits him well, and I hope he capitalizes on it in the future. I was slightly dismayed when I heard of Carell’s departure from The Office, especially since his film career has been hit and miss-miss for me, but if he continues to deliver performances like this, well, all’s forgiven. However, the real standouts in this film are Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

Emma Stone is easily one of the best new actresses for this generation, as she does funny/cute in a way that I can only describe as ‘younger, female Steve Carell.’ She’s awkward enough to be empathetic while pretty enough to be mesmerizing. I’ve enjoyed her in everything I’ve seen so far, and Comic Con buzz bodes well for her performance in next year’s The Amazing Spider-Man. As for Gosling, I haven’t seen a lot of his work, but I was really impressed by his ability to bring pathos to what otherwise may have been a one-note schmuck of a character.

The breakout star of this film, though is easily Jonah Bobo, who plays Steve Carell and Julianne Moore’s son. He has been in a bunch of other films, but how could you not love this kid after seeing him play the lovestruck and wise-beyond-his-years 13-year-old. Oh, and I want to also make mention of Josh Groban, who is actually really funny in his small role in the film. I would love to see him in a Wes Anderson film.

Besides being very funny, I also enjoyed that this film possesses very well-rounded characters. All of them were fleshed out enough where they felt like real people, even relatively minor characters, which is quite an accomplishment from a writing perspective.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. remains entertaining the entire way through, and it’s also one of the few comedies in this genre that feels like the ending is earned rather than forced. Maybe it’s because we start this film way past the point where most others would end.

Easy A and Teen Sex: A Gal’s Manifesto

It has been exactly 10 years since I first started high school. As scary a thought as that is, I was confronted by an even scarier question when I saw Easy A in theaters over the weekend: Has the teen sex barometer increased since my high school days, or am I just getting old? I pray it’s the former. I say this because I can’t seem to remember being overly concerned about my sex life (or lack there of), or more importantly the sex life of my peers. But this was an era before Facebook, so should I really be surprised that since we now expect every part of our “friends” lives to be available for perusal, that this also includes activities done behind closed doors?

Easy A is being touted as a “different” and “smarter” film documenting the rough waters of teen sexuality. Led by a stellar cast (including my favorites Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) with breakthrough talent Emma Stone at the helm, I can say that this film brilliantly weaves together a different kind of coming of age story while paying homage to the teen classics that invented the genre. It is in these moments when we start to see the difference between teen sex then and now. Easy A only succeeds in referencing these classic films, in particular Say Anthing and 16 Candles. The film does not possess, and can not hope to encompass the quirky innocence of John Hughes’ world. Instead, the film uses these montages and throwback moments to ask the question: Do we want to go back? And the answer might actually be yes…but we can’t, and that’s the point. Even teens can be nostalgic about a time they were never apart of to begin with.

When Olive Penderghast (Stone) is pelvis high in Slutty McSlutville, she states on her webcast confessional that all she really wants is to be asked out to dinner by a guy, and not demand meaningless monetary payment for faux-sexual favors. Wasn’t sex a lot easier when all it entailed was leaning in for a kiss over a birthday cake, or hearing Peter Gabriel outside your bedroom window?

This isn’t to say I am a fanatical puritan hell bent on eradicating all sexual encounters between teens (God, if only). It is unrealistic and possibly dangerous to ignore the new present day experience of being a teenager. But does Easy A really present a new message to teens or is it hiding a reality that is eons deep in our culture and will most likely never fully be forgotten? Let me explain.

For the most part, audiences are left with this food for thought at the end of the film: You can have sex, or not have sex, and it’s all cool and no one’s business but your own. However it clouds over the issue of why we need to keep our mouths shut about it in the first place. Because throughout the movie, Olive, because she was a girl, was labeled a slut. I think we all know how the boys got along. Just fine thank you very much. But it seems that if a woman wants to own her sexuality, she either needs to except the label of a harlot, or not breathe a word about the encounter and hope the guy does the same. Don’t get me wrong, Easy A is a step in an interesting direction that argues for being your own person and in charge of your sexual life whether you choose to have one or not. I’m still waiting for the day when a girl and boy can walk out of a closet at a house party and both get cheers and pats on the back.

Stray Observations:

-Olive announces her woes and reaffirms her true reputation via webcam. Not a journal. Or a bathroom stall. My, my times have changed.

-The high school campus is ridiculously gorgeous, a la “10 Things I Hate About You.” And what’s with public schools in movies having these cute little gym uniforms? That just doesn’t happen.

-Overly understanding parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) a la “Juno.” One wonders if this is the filmmakers subtle plea to today’s parents, begging them to take it easy on their hormonal kiddies. I’m not holding my breath.