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Home » Culture and Criticism

13/31: The Help

Submitted by on December 13, 2011 – 9:12 PM10 Comments

I give The Help sooo much credit; it won me over despite my utter determination to hate it. You can ask Couch Baron, to whom I spent a good ten minutes bitching on IM about the movie, why's it gotta be so loooooong, I didn't like the first version of The Blind Side I don't wanna watch anoooooother oooooone, it's not for yankees anywaaaaaaay, not everybody in the '60s South was a racist twat I geeeeet iiiiiiit — I sat down on the couch, folded my arms, and set my right eyebrow to Not Having It.

And it is simplistic, and it is pat in spots and pandering in other spots, and it does congratulate a handful of white people for doing the minimum suggested by the golden rule while demonizing a handful of others for their cartoonish bigotry, and it's a full-on Magical Black Woman convention. If you want to dismiss it, I feel you, and you won't have to look far for reasons.

But if you want to love it unreservedly, you won't have to look far for reasons to do that, either. The movie looks mouth-watering, first of all — the set design, the wardrobe, the unbelievably alluring platters of fried chicken, the watery blues and rooster reds in the kitchens, the heaviness of the hairstyles. The director, Tate Taylor, is newish, I think, but everyone inhabits the scenes fully; it doesn't feel like dress-up. Specifically, I'm remembering a split second in which a character hurdles some vomit on his way out of a room. That Taylor remembered where the vomit was and that it would be actual vomit to the character, and that he thought to have that happen, is smart.

It's the performances that'll get you, though, and I can't speak to the book because I haven't read it, but despite frequently inelegant execution, the script understands and (usually) loves its characters, and the actors have bought in down the line. Viola Davis as Aibileen is wonderful, but I was even more charmed by Octavia Spencer's Minny, Jessica "Not Improv; Still Everywhere" Chastain as Celia (her joyful shaking of the chicken was the moment that broke me down), Allison Janney walking a thankless tightrope, and most of all Sissy Spacek, who is having the time of her life. That Scene is overplayed and underwhelming, but the callbacks to it work, somehow (the check written to "Two Slice Hilly" slayed me), and Spacek's character just not giving a damn and laughing at everyone is played flawlessly. ("Run, Minny — ruuuuuun!") I wish Anna Camp had more to do, and the Skeeter character is predictable and kind of flat, though Emma Stone does a serviceable job with it — but on the other end of that, Bryce Dallas Howard gives a horrible, ugly character a shot of humanity that makes the ugliness more effective.

The Help is by-numbers, too long, and unable to resist the urge to overclose; the scene in the church towards the end, for example, is manipulative in the extreme, and unnecessary in the first place. Yet at the same time, you really feel the bond between Aibileen and Minnie in that moment, and Davis renders Aibileen's overwhelm just so.

I can see all the actors cancelling each other out come nomination time; I don't know how I'd choose, or for what categories. We can probably count on Davis, and you could see Chastain or Spencer on the slate, too. The movie itself, well…if you hate it, I don't blame you. But if you can't keep hating it, ditto.

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  • Seankgallagher says:

    I had pretty much the same reaction you did (except I don't think Allison Janney was able to walk that tightrope, though I don't blame her. This was an attempt, I think, to show a character's casual racism, but it came off heavy-handed. Contrast her to, say, Patricia Clarkson in "Far From Heaven"; when you find out she's racist, it's like a punch in the gut). I found a lot of it simplistic and manipulative as well, and yet it did affect me, thanks to the three performances you highlight. With Davis, I agree with Meryl Streep; somebody give her a damn movie, now! (Streep should know; in one scene, Davis stole "Doubt" from everyone else). She made me choke up in the last scene she had with the little girl (forget the character's name) where she tells her for the last time, "You is kind, you is smart, you is important". I've apparently seen Spencer in a few movies (and an episode of "Dollhouse"), but don't remember her; I'm definitely going to remember her now. And as for Chastain, I know Michelle Williams has been winning raves for "My Week with Marilyn", and while I haven't seen it yet, I know she's talented enough to play the role, but Chastain had a very Monroe-like manner that perfectly fit the role, and made me think she could play Monroe.

  • Kari says:

    I just watched the movie after reading the book over a year ago. I thought the movie was too long, and didn't engage me the way the book did. Overall, I wasn't thrilled with the movie, but my husband, who hasn't read the book, liked the movie. It's possible I got too much hype about the movie and it couldn't live up, which is why I hate talking to people about movies, but there it is. I recommend giving the book a go.

  • Kriesa says:

    Well, you convinced me to give the movie a shot. I'd listened to the audio book, which is extremely well done, and enjoyed it a lot. It's really well performed. However, I was convinced that the movie version would hit all the pitfalls you mention, and I'd decided to skip it. It sounds as if the movie does just as well as the audio book, though. Thanks for the review.

  • Jeanne says:

    I enjoyed both book and movie, though I didn't go ga-ga for it like all the book club ladies around here. I find the genesis of the movie interesting. Kathryn Stockett is friends with both Tate and Spencer in real life, and wrote Minnie with Spencer in mind.

    I freaking loved Sissy Spacek in this. I was skeptical about her being cast in the role but she was awesome, and was clearly having a blast.

    I think Jessica Chastain was perfect. She brought across Celia's desperation and frailty so well. I almost wish she was in it more.

    I love Emma Stone, and she did a servicable job, but I thought she was all wrong for Skeeter. Skeeter is supposed to be tall and skinny and awkward with a frizzy halo of hair. She did not fit it at all.

  • jive turkey says:

    @Seankgallagher: I am totally feeling you about Chastain playing Marilyn. Would've loved to have seen that.

    I had a similar reaction to the movie as you did, Sars, and after reading this post, I'm excited to watch it again. The moment between Aibileen and the little girl that Seankgallagher mentions above turned me into a sobbing mess in the theater.

  • Elisa says:

    I quite liked the movie too, although I felt they left in some odd things from the book, and left out other things that would have made it better. But don't they always?

    It was entertaining, I saw it in the theater and wouldn't mind seeing it again.

    Sissy Spacek was hilarious. I half expected her to pull out a gun at some point, for no reason. Just to be more badass.

  • […] me, I'm as surprised as you are. I was the other end of the conversation with Sarah in which we dreaded seeing this one, and that was before I found out I was in for a […]

  • cinderkeys says:

    Hmmm, Bryce Dallas Howard plays another unpleasant character with a shot of humanity? I'd be curious to see what you thought of her in 50/50. Is a review of that movie in the stars?

  • MinglesMommy says:

    I haven't seen it yet; I did love Kenan Thompson's crack on SNL about it (I think Seth Myers was doing "Weekend Update" and several "stereotyped characters" came on to do their bits; Thompson was the "wise black character who comes in to help the white guy").


    Seth: "What about 'The Help'?"

    Kenan: "You mean the movie that showed if we hum loudly enough, Emma Stone will come save us?"


  • MsC says:

    "And it is simplistic, and it is pat in spots and pandering in other spots, and it does congratulate a handful of white people for doing the minimum suggested by the golden rule…"

    I honestly can hardly articulate how disgusting I found the book, on principle, for a lot of the reasons you listed and barely made it through to the end because the sheer gall of the author made my chest hurt. You would have to pay me a not insignificant amount of money to sit through the movie.

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