Dir: Tate Taylor
Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek
Rating: * * * (out of 5)
In the fantastic 2008 drama Doubt, Viola Davis is on screen for less than 15 minutes. Yet, in a movie starring acting heavyweights such as Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Davis' performance was one that garnered so much acclaim that she snagged a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars that year.
In The Help, Davis gets a fully-fleshed out role she can sink her teeth into, and it is a testament to her talent that she overshadows current Hollywood it-girl Emma Stone most of the time, if only by a bit. The dynamic between these two powerhouse actresses forms the core of this film, a race drama set in the '60s, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett.
Davis plays Aibileen, a 40-something black maid who has spent her life 'bringing up white children'. This is suburban Mississippi, one of the most conservative states in America, where the winds of change comprising the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr are yet to rattle the tree lines. Her best friend and fellow maid, Minny (Spencer), is cheese to her chalk - while Aibileen is subtle and silent in her reactions, Minny is a somewhat immature bundle of sass.
They work for white families where they aren't allowed basic facilities such as being allowed to use the same toilets as their white employers. Indeed, Minny gets fired for doing just that by her bigoted employer, the chilling Hilly Holbrook (Dallas Howard). While Holbrook and her friends embody the snobbishness of upper middle class Southerners, Skeeter, who has been friends with them since high school seems to be a different bent of mind (although the movie gives no real satisfactory explanation for it).
Skeeter, who aspires to become a writer, asks to interview Aibileen to get an insight into the life of a maid. This forms the crux of the story, with the rest of the plot proceeding in typical feel-good fashion towards a predictable finale.
There is nothing remotely unwatchable about this movie, and that is perhaps its single biggest weakness. The paint-by-numbers screenplay doesn't once make you squirm in your seat uncomfortably, doesn't unsettle you and therefore, does not allow you to have a cathartic movie-going experience. The narrative relates the racial differences between blacks and whites as though there's a check-list of events that the movie needs to run through. One could argue that the movie itself is a tad racist, given the broad strokes with which Minny's character is painted ("I sure could use me some fried chicken," she says in one scene, sounding like a parody of her own character). The overall tone of the film, from the bright and optimistic colour palette to the relatively conflict-free way in which the storyline progresses, is reminiscent of a Disney production. In fact, it can be compared directly to last year's horse racing drama Secretariat, also a seemingly faultless movie with unrealistic characterisation and an unduly optimistic air about it.
Watch The Help for the excellent performances, particularly from Davis. However, this isn't a movie that will get under your skin and stay there. Audiences will see this as a good thing - and it is, in a way - but The Help is guilty of breaking a crucial rule when it comes to adapting a novel: adding levity where none was required.