Friday, August 12, 2011

Film Review: "The Help" (***)

I admit some hesitation on the rating I'd place on "The Help", but then I felt that the work of cast and crew behind this film was more deserving than three lousy stars. And then I remembered how corny the script was at times, and reverted back to three. Not to say that this isn't worth it. On the contrary, I am very happy that I was able to end my summer film experience one a relative high note, because I know for sure that I'm not checking out any more of this month's releases. I had expressed unease earlier, because despite the cast behind it being mostly strong, it seemed like far too safe an area to be interesting. Indeed it is, but this isn't really a film that invites too much suspense, nor does it need it.

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, "The Help" chronicles the lives of a community of people living in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. While it permeates through several lives, it mostly focuses on a main triad of protagonists. There's Skeeter, a strong willed, business-driven white girl, Aibileen, a proven and experienced black maid for a white family, and Minnie, an outspoken and sassy friend of Aibileen's who has lost a great deal of jobs due to that description. They all bring a different mentality to the table, and they do it in order to change the racist way things are done in Jackson.

There is obviously a lot of tension based on the time period alone, but it's quite fascinating the way this story is spun. It oddly enough doesn't feel at all like our world, even in the past. The upper-class white women exert a position of power and luxury, while leaving the work to the maids. I know it doesn't sound at all strange given that's how things were back then, but the maids are essentially the mothers to these children. Biology is of no consequence. In case you can't tell from the first minute of the film, it's propelled by a heart, and it's thankfully in the right place.

If you're just off of seeing "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", as I assume most are, this will come off in better contrast. It's a revolution story we can believe in, because we can see the pain inflicted upon these characters, and their actions don't degrade themselves to the level of their enemies. On top of that, it's no small feat they're trying to pull off, and it's never painted as such. The polarization and conflict these characters face is extensive. They are fighting for a society either too afraid or too blind to take action. And yet somehow the cacophony of both sides mixes in just the right way at the right moment.

And I haven't even gotten to the cast yet, which is all around spectacular from most ends. Viola Davis does indeed go through a sort of transformation, and she's not playing rebellious black lady-preacher you'd expect to lead the cause. Her character is very much trapped and at the mercy of these people. Aibileen has been broken by the confrontation with white society year after year, and it's only through the strength of her friends that she keeps going on. Octavia Spencer, in a non-combative contrast, proves to be the backbone of the film. She is in the greatest position of danger, constantly throwing herself in harm's way, and you get the impression that something bad's going to happen to her specifically.

And then there's Emma Stone, whose Skeeter isn't exactly as endearingly abrasive as Minnie, but she's far from a victim. She plays the ground of the rare colorblind (as in blind to race) white person who has always had a strong will, but actually finds a sense of courage throughout the film. Stone is an absolute knockout once again, and she deserves every single bit of it. The insane thing is that there are several other wonderful performances from actors whose roles aren't quite as substantial as the main three.

Starting from almost the literal bottom, I have to praise the casting director simply for bringing in Anna Camp of Mad Men fame to the general aesthetic of the community. She's a somewhat familiar face that adds a bit of light charisma to her minimal screen time. Bryce Dallas Howard proves to be actually well suited to the role of Hilly, and you can perhaps see where she's coming from, but that doesn't make you start to empathize with her for a second. Jessica Chastain is absolutely surprising as a shunned housewife of the community who expresses delight in whatever friends she can get. There are many times in the film that I just wanted to give her a hug, cause she goes through dangerous waters about halfway through the film.

And rounding things out are Sissy Spacek and Allison Janney who represent the mothers who went in distinctly opposite directions as far as their own personal lives and their relations with their children. Cinematography Stephen Goldblatt does absolutely nothing extraordinary with the visual representation, but he could've gone much further wrong. Thomas Newman actually proves to be the invisible hand holding the film together, his score holding to his regular themes and dynamics, but he knows how to let the emotional hammer down at the right moment.

Director Tate Taylor, on the other hand, somehow seems to be something of a non-entity. The most you could say is that Taylor is set on it being safe enough to show children in high school history classes. If I have a problem with the film, it's that it gets a little too sweet in the final reel. However, after thinking over it a while, it actually puts our characters in quite a sad situation, and I'll place a SPOILER ALERT here so you can see the film for yourself, with this as my earnest recommendation. The dead are still dead, and the arrested are still incarcerated. Skeeter has lost the greatest majority of her friends, and has hostility from the greater Mississippi area. Aibileen has lost her job, her calling, and the child who she has raised from infancy, and it's uncertain where things will take her from here. It's an ambiguous and somewhat depressing ending note, and it causes the film to rise in impact and quality. Any moment of qualm should be silenced after that whopper of a final confrontation. SPOILERS END HERE, and so does my review.

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