Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, a southern society girl returns from college determined to become a writer, but turns her friends' lives -- and a small Mississippi town -- upside down when she decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent southern families. Aibileen, Skeeter's best friend's housekeeper, is the first to open up -- to the dismay of her friends in the tight-knit black community. Despite Skeeter's life-long friendships hanging in the balance, she and Aibileen continue their collaboration and soon more women come forward to tell their stories -- and as it turns out, they have a lot to say.
Like the comfort food that lines the tables of its characters, The Help - Tate Taylor's adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel - is sweet and savory and made with love. And though it's a tad overstuffed, and perhaps lacking in some vital nutrients, it will undoubtedly leave a smile on your face.
The film is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962, and dwells in the cloistered world of privileged white housewives who, when not producing babies, devote their lives to bridge club and Junior League and charity balls and gossip, while their black domestic servants - the titular "help" - cook their food, clean their houses, and (for the most part) raise their children. Into this stratified milieu arrives headstrong and liberal-minded Ole Miss graduate Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone). An aspiring writer, Skeeter takes a job as cleaning-advice columnist for the local newspaper, but her real ambition is a secret side project: a book that will honor the work of Jackson's black housekeepers and draw attention to the mistreatment they often endure.
Such a book would naturally upset the accepted order of things in Jackson, an order zealously protected by Miss Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the most prominent of the Jackson socialites. Hilly is no mere villain; she's the embodiment of all the cruelty and intransigence of the Jim Crow South - George Wallace in a beehive. The film purports her to be one of Skeeter's best friends, but it's hard to believe our kind-hearted heroine would associate with this bigoted snob (or, for that matter, with the rest of the white women in the film, all of whom are depicted as either overtly or obliquely racist). This is a women whose pet civic project is an initiative to require Jackson homeowners to install separate toilets for their help, because they "carry different diseases." If The Help allotted Hilly a shred of humanity, her friendship with Skeeter might seem plausible, but to do so would dampen the film's emotional punch - its raison d'etre, as we learn later.
The Help is much kinder to its black servants, two of whom - Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) - agree to collaborate with Skeeter on her secret exposé. Aibileen, who raises white children with affection and warmth even as she bears the heartbreak of having tragically lost her own son, is the film's anchor. Sassy, stubborn Minny is its spark. (Her scenes with Jessica Chastain's Celia, a lonely airhead in desperate need of culinary advice, are the film's most endearing.) Given the film's two meatiest roles, Spencer and Davis deliver its most memorable performances. That's high praise indeed, considering that the cast is uniformly excellent.
The Help's final act might as well be subtitled the "Humbling of Hilly Holbrook," as the film sets about gleefully dismantling the brunette piñata it has so carefully and conspicuously erected. Hilly sees her front yard defaced by discarded commodes, eats a pie spiked with feces, receives a verbal beatdown from seemingly every other character, and sprouts a massive pimple - even her complexion disapproves of her, it seems. Skeeter's book, when it is published, is a smashing success - but less for its ennobling of Aibileen, Minny, and their fellow-maids than its devastating take-down of Hilly and her Junior League cohorts. We are all invited to revel in the near-slapstick shadenfreude, but in between the snickering, it's worth pondering whether the film has perhaps lost its way. Was The Help really intended as a revenge fantasy?
Taylor, a Mississippi native who has worked primarily as an actor and boasts only one feature filmmaking credit - 2008's Pretty Ugly People, a film that earned $6,537 at the box office, according to boxofficemojo.com - seems an odd choice to helm such a high-profile project as The Help. That is, until you learn that he and author Stockett grew up together, and remain close friends. His hiring might strike some as cronyism, but it doesn't hurt the film. Taylor demonstrates a confident grasp of the character and contradictions of Jackson, and he shows restraint with material that, in less judicious hands, could have amounted to so much southern-fried sap. Which isn't to say The Help doesn't tug on the heartstrings - indeed, it's precisely designed to do so - but it never surrenders to sentiment.