Movie review: ‘The Help’

In theaters

“The Help,” written by Tate Taylor and Kathryn Stockett (novel), directed by Taylor, 137 minutes, rated PG-13.

Oppression is one of those perennial topics that has fueled storytelling for years, and it will continue to as long as there’s someone out there being held down by a higher power.From a distance, “The Help,” adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular novel, may seem like a preachy tale about segregation in 1960s Jackson, Miss. But when you examine it up close, it’s a personal portrait of three women looking to break free from the roles that society has drawn for them.

Aibileen and Minny (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer) were born into their “careers” as housemaids because of the color of their skin. Treated as second-class citizens, the two do their best to keep their heads down while raising white babies (Southern society girls don’t know how to care for children), cleaning and cooking.

The two find their voices with the help of Skeeter (Emma Stone), a green journalist whose enthusiasm far exceeds her experience. She’s an educated Southern society girl with a tomboy streak, and unlike her peers, Skeeter’s career as a writer is more a priority than getting married and having kids. Those differences garner some salty looks from the overbearing Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her minion Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly).

The three women become reluctant partners in a hush-hush club dedicated to telling and selling the stories of the black maids to a publisher in New York. It’s dangerous, of course — not only could these writing sessions destroy the names of everyone involved, it is technically illegal according to Mississippi law.

“The Help” hinges on the chemistry between the three women, which is as natural as it gets. If “Easy A” made Emma Stone a star (and it did), then “The Help” puts it in cement. Viola Davis, a character actress always worth watching, finds the perfect break-out lead role as Aibileen, and Octavia Spencer’s performance is a pleasant surprise from a relative unknown.

Despite three strong leads, “The Help” has no sense of subtlety, spelling everything out for its audience. Good and evil are concrete concepts and everybody falls under one or the other, especially Howard’s Hilly Holbrook, whose lust for nastiness is lifted straight from soap operas.

The movie also goes so far with one joke, a “Jackass”-like gag involving excrement pie, that it loses what little pay-off it had. It’s an unnecessary low that the film would have been better off avoiding.Still, it’s engrossing seeing Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter navigate their way through a world that would rather they remain wallflowers. “The Help” is not an expose on the segregated South, and it’s not about getting revenge on the horrible white families who mistreated the women. It’s about the unlikely friendship the three form, and the changes they make because of it. And, taken as that, it’s not a bad movie.

Grade: B-

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