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.

Get Low: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Get Low is a film about stories. Good stories, bad stories, and the stories that are never told out loud but are repeated continuously in the dark recesses of the mind. The film plays with methods of storytelling found deep in the fabric of old Americana, weaving together a cinematic tale ripe with poignant character portrayals.

The acting is really the focus of the movie, and if Robert Duvall hadn’t won an Oscar already (albeit in 1983 for Tender Mercies), I would have sworn this was merely a vehicle for awards attention. There’s no doubt that Get Low will get that attention, and it should. Duvall shines as the crusty old “hermit” Felix Bush, who lives a solitary life as a self-inflicted punishment for a past he can’t bring himself to tell, but that he never forgets. The film is at its strongest when it dwells on Bush’s inner struggle, and not the source of the pain. I found the conclusion to be somewhat anticlimactic in this sense, but the performances are more than enough for audiences to take away. Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Lucas Black are all perfectly cast in their respective roles.

While the acting in the film has garnered much attention, I was also interested in the main plot of the film, concerning Felix Bush and his funeral extravaganza. After living alone for a majority of his life, Bush has managed to alienate most of his neighbors, forging an identity as a deep woods phantom. All the townspeople have a story, or rumor about the old scary man in the woods, and Bush invites them all to share their stories at the funeral. But he is hard pressed to find a soul willing to come speak for him at the funeral, to tell the truth about his life, because he thinks he is incapable of doing so. It is an important allegory used in the film about funerals as the audience might understand them. We all want to be assured that there will be someone in our lives that we trust who can speak for us when we are unable to speak for ourselves. Bush is able to find someone who can do his dirty work, but the audience never hears it. And instead of the townspeople spinning their own wild tales of the madman, Bush is finally able to share with everyone, especially those to whom it matters most, the truth about his life.

Get Low does have some minor flaws, the largest of which is a script that is too small to contain the talents of Duvall, Murray, and Spacek. But at its core, I can’t help but feel that the film turns the traditional childhood “tall tale” on its head, and asks the question, If the boogeyman under the bed had his chance to come clean, I wonder what his side of the story would be.