It’s true that “The Help,” the deeply engrossing new movie that shines due to some absolutely brilliant acting by the three leads, consigns the shootings and beatings of the Civil Rights-era South to news reports and distant riots.
It’s also true that, despite Emma Stone’s enjoyable, deeply felt performance, that the movie possibly takes too much time on the troubles of a white girl. But Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer deliver breathtakingly nuanced, Oscar-worthy performances, making audiences feel each and every one of the thousand shades of acceptance and pain that must have made up these women’s day-to-day lives. As the credits rolled, I felt lucky to have known them.
For those who (like me) haven’t read the book, the movie’s plot center’s around the efforts of a young woman named Skeeter (Emma Stone) to record the life stories and honest opinion of a Southern community’s black maids for a book deal in New York.
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is the first to say yes, despite the very genuine threat to these women’s lives and paychecks by agreeing to this, and over the course of the movie Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) and others join in as a way to fight back against the cruelties of their employers.
I could have spent the entire movie simply watching Davis’s eyes and come away enriched by the experience. Everything from old grief and deeply-buried anger to momentary pleasure and a kind of helpless tenderness just shone out of those eyes, adding layers of nuance that her character couldn’t have spoken or even let come out in her voice.
A part of me wishes that the entire movie had been about her character, letting us see the half-spoken stories that Davis imbued with so much emotion, but the restrictions of an adaptation naturally restricts the movie that ends up being created.
Of course, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss even a moment with Spencer’s character, either. “The Help” author Kathryn Stockett has said that she wrote the character of Minny with Spencer in mind, and the sharp-tongued, no-nonsense dynamo is one of the most richly vivid characters on screen.
Though the character adds a needed dose of righteous anger to proceedings, she’s also the source of some of the funniest moments in “The Help.” This includes the movie’s longest-running joke, about a pie with a secret ingredient, and though I found it absolutely hilarious it might be too much for the more easily shockable (I’d add kids to this list, but they’ll probably find it even funnier than the adults will).
Race questions aside, watching Emma Stone is also a wonderful experience. Though the actress is better known for comedy, she brings just the right mixture of defiant naïvety and conviction to Skeeter to make the character extremely hard not to like.
Her humor is nicely dry, and her feelings for her family’s own mysteriously-absent maid (Constantine) are tender and genuine-seeming.
As the movie’s villain, Bryce Dallas Howard perfectly calibrates the sugar-coated knife blade that is Hilly Holbrook. Hilly is the ultimate example of women’s cruelty, flashing like teeth beneath the edge of the perfectly cultivated veneer.
In fact, she’s so good at being bad she may seem like a caricature to anyone who hasn’t had a woman just like her as a neighbor.
Though I was happy for every moment of vengeance directed at the woman, I must admit that I believed even the brief moment of pain that the movie allowed her to show.
Women, after all, know to keep their hurt unspoken.