Directed by: Tate Taylor
Written by: Tate Taylor (screenplay), Kathryn Stockett (novel)
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Bryce Dallas Howard
More than anything- its Civil Rights message, its 60s send-back, its self-awareness of both- Tate Taylor’s film adaptation of The Help is more proof that female-driven movies outside the rom-com purgatory are infiltrating the mainstream. That is the edgiest thing about it by far. As many critics have already remarked, it is a fairly safe movie. It tackles racism in Jackson, Mississippi in the time period surrounding the assassination of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy.
Like AMC’s Mad Men, it dresses its stars (or the white ones at least) in irresistibly colorful dresses and tortures their hair into ridiculously smoothed-out contortions. Unlike that show, it is aware of when it takes place. This script, written by the director Tate Taylor, anticipates everything it’s going to throw at you.
Moments of scandal, such as when the primped-up antagonist Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) announces her plan to require the “Colored Help” to have separate bathrooms, arrive with slight pauses to procure your “gasp.” At times it’s like a laugh-track network sitcom, only with soap-opera preaching and tear cues.
That being said, this movie does allow for a wonderful showcase of acting talent. Viola Davis delivers a towering performance as Aibileen, the first woman to speak out to the young reporter and Jackson native Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone). Davis brings such gravity to the movie that without her, it may have been a disaster. Her eyes radiate unbearable sadness and loss, which she eventually conveys verbally in her interviews with Skeeter.
Stone continues her white-hot career with a role that takes her away from comedy. She gets to play for the occasional laugh (as do most cast members), but she’s nowhere near the firebrand she is in movies like Easy A or Zombieland. She proves here that she is capable of being a serious performer, but she also shows that she is better at comedy… at least for now.
Skeeter and Aibileen team up with Minny (Octavia Spencer), an even more fed-up maid, to show people what it’s like from the help’s point of view. The script effectively gets us on the side of these three women and makes us want them to succeed. Bryce Dallas Howard is a fantastic performer who was given a one-dimensional monster to play against such sympathetic characters.
This story would’ve been better with more complex antagonists. Allison Janney plays Skeeter’s ailing mother Charlotte. There is a flashback scene where she recalls firing long-time maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) just because high-society snobs were looking down at her leniency with her. Charlotte and that fired servant share a look of such complexity as a door shuts between them that it deserved its own movie.
It’s surprising that even this version of the movie was made, though. A two-and-a-half hour message movie that is largely conversation is a tough sell, or it would be if Kathryn Stockett’s original novel hadn’t done so well. Tate Taylor doesn’t direct the movie as much as he lets the story play out through the script. The movie is visually interesting mostly because of the costume design, and Taylor does very few interesting things with the camera to aid in the story he’s trying to tell.
Everything about this movie is well-intentioned. Even if it’s too over-polished to be completely moving, cracks of emotion surface thanks to the fantastic acting from Davis, Spencer, Janney, and Jessica Chastain. Chastain, who was nearly wordless but still brilliant in The Tree of Life, is an emotionally rambunctious and chatty woman named Celia. She was poor before she married into money, and is thus cast out of the Hilly’s elitist social circle like the maids and, ultimately, Skeeter.
The common thread of finding one’s place in a world so fraught with hatred is the thread that connects these women. Their desire to change an ugly moral code buried beneath glamor and excess is an engaging premise. In the end, though, The Help partially succumbs to its own aesthetic glamor and overwrought emotional excess.