THE HELP – Worth A Ticket:  The Story May Be Soft, The Acting Isn’t
THE HELP is–and I mean this in a good way–a big-screen Hallmark Hall of Fame.   It’s a long, absorbing, emotionally satisfying piece of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking that skims the surface of its difficult subject–the life of black maids and nannies in the pre-Civil Rights era South–in a way that used to win Best Picture Oscars back in the post-World War II era.  (Think Gentleman’s Agreement or The Best Years of Our Lives.)  These days, we expect serious subjects to be addressed in less comfortable ways on screen, and The Help has already gotten plenty of backlash and meta-criticism for its style and format.  Taken for what it is, though, the picture delivers.

Based, of course, on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett (which I haven’t read), the film version of The Help is written for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, whose only previous feature credit was a low-budget comedy called Pretty Ugly People that barely appeared in theaters.  (It didn’t hurt that Taylor is an old friend of Stockett’s who lobbied for him to get the job.)  One key element of the controversy around the book and film is that its central character is a young white woman.  Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate in 1963 Mississippi, doesn’t fit in with her debutante surroundings.  (In a different universe, Skeeter would be Peggy on Mad Men.)  Skeeter works as a local reporter, but she chafes at the pretensions of the girls she grew up with (headed by Hilly Holbrook, played by Bryce Dallas Howard), and when she sees the way that group treats their maids, she has the idea of compiling a book of interviews with those women.
The soul of The Help lies in these women, and particularly two of them:  Aibileen (Viola Davis), who lovingly raises the young children of white families that treat her as chattel, and Minny (Octavia Spencer), who works for the odious Hilly.  Matters in the town come to a head with Hilly decides that the maids should not be allowed to use the family toilet, and that all houses in town should have special outhouses built for their help.  Although Skeeter may be the protagonist of The Help, and we’re forced to watch a fair amount of her not-very-interesting relationships with a suitor (Chris Lowell) and her ailing mother (Allison Janney), the film does understand that the humiliation and courage of the maids is its true center.
Whenever a Hollywood movie approaches a painful subject, there’s always the dicey task of balancing the hard-to-watch facts with enough entertainment value to make audiences willing to endure the experience.  The Help is unafraid of frosting its heartache with comedy, sometimes broadly so, and there are those who object to that.  None of the humor, though, takes away from the awful situations depicted.  What Taylor does very well is present a portrait of the profoundly mixed emotions the races had for one another in that place and time, where many of the children raised so fondly by these maids grow up to become their oppressors.
The acting is as good as anyone could ask.  Davis, who’s been terrific for years in movies like Doubt and Antwone Fisher, is superb and strong, and Davis navigates the tricky line between the movie’s comedy and drama impeccably.  Stone is as radiant as any young actress in movies today, while Howard, who can easily be dull in nice-girl roles, seems revivified by the chance to play a monster.  Also worth noting is Jessica Chastain, as a white-trash nouveau riche wife whose story intersects with Minny’s, and Sissy Spacek, who does a marvelous job as Howard’s mother, a woman who stays crafty even as dementia is setting in.
It can’t be said that Taylor impresses as a film artist with a rare eye, but for what’s essentially his debut, he does a fine job:  he’s marvelous with the actresses (none of the men make much of an impression) and does a solid, professional job behind the camera, helped by such pros as cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt and composer Thomas Newman.
The Help is more than a little retro as a movie; it certainly doesn’t offer the kind of insight and commentary about its era that we get in Mad Men.  The film has no great revelations to offer, either in story or in style.  But there’s a place for accomplished narrative at the movies, especially when accompanied by the kind of acting we have here, and The Help gratifyingly meets that goal.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."