A deeply touching human story filled with humor and heartbreak is rare in any movie season, especially summer. That’s what makes The Help an exhilarating gift. It could have been a disaster. Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel riled a few critics. The gall of Stockett, a white woman from Jackson, Mississippi, to think she could get inside the heads of black maids serving white folks during the early 1960s. The dialect (“Yes, ma’am,” “sho-nuff,” “Law have mercy”) probably helped Stockett get more than 60 rejections from literary agents. But her book, published by Penguin in 2009, touched a raw nerve that led to bestsellerdom and a frank admission from Stockett about how she could never truly understand what it felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights movement. “But trying to understand,” Stockett wrote, “is vital to our humanity.”
Solid point. And the film version of The Help, directed and written – at Stockett’s request – by the relatively inexperienced Tate Taylor (her friend from Jackson), does full justice to that intention. Short on style and flashy technique, The Help on film compensates with genuine emotional force.
The actors are sublime. Start with the brilliant Viola Davis (Doubt) as Aibileen Clark, the housekeeper who’s helped raise 17 white children for various families but is still reeling from the accidental death of her only son. Aibileen bites her tongue when her employer (Ahna O’Reilly) ignores her own baby girl and Aibileen’s feelings when she’s relegated to the new bathroom outside. Aibileen’s best friend, Minny Jackson (an award-caliber performance from Octavia Spencer), isn’t one to hold back. The secret ingredient she pops in a pie for her racist boss (Bryce Dallas Howard, all-stops-out) earns its name as the “Terrible Awful.” The fired Minny is forced to take a job with white-trash social outcast Celia Foote, who could have been a bombshell cliché if the incandescent Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life) didn’t play her with such warmth and feeling.
The film’s catalyst is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent graduate of Ole Miss looking to spark a career in journalism by getting Aibileen and Minny to confide their feelings about working for white families in a changing South. Skeeter is a tricky part – white girl liberates enslaved black womanhood – but Stone, an exceptional talent, is so subtly effective at showing Skeeter’s naiveté. It’s Skeeter’s job to first liberate herself from the bigoted codes passed on through generations, including her mother (Allison Janney) and Skeeter’s own card-dealing, role-playing girlfriends. The Help tries to understand all of them. It’s an intimate epic, not a historical one. And the tale written on the eloquent faces of Davis and Spencer speaks to the heart.