Also on video today is "The Help," which I liked very much. If you are thinking about buying it, here's my review of the movie. From the Akron Beacon Journal, Aug. 10, 2011:
The Help is a powerful and intelligent drama about two women, maids in Jackson, Miss., in the early '60s. In fact, I wish it told us more of their stories, and less about the third major character, a young would-be writer in the same community.
In saying that, I know that I am entering the complicated racial territory surrounding Kathryn Stockett's novel, which is the basis for the movie. And I want to be clear that the movie is, overall, very good, the kind that will draw tears and laughs and even some cheers. But because the novel, like the movie, tells the story of African-American women at least partly through the filter of a white character, it runs the risk of being seen as yet another diminishing of the African-American experience in favor of the white point of view. And The Help on-screen suggests that once again Hollywood does not believe a mass audience will go to a movie without at least one key white character — in this case the writer Skeeter (played by Emma Stone).
But The Help does not entirely fall into that trap because the two African-Americans, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), are powerful in their own right. Questioning the novel in Entertainment Weekly, novelist Martha Southgate said Minny and Aibileen "didn't need Skeeter to guide them to the light." The film very much understands that. The white characters are changed by the African-American ones far more than the other way around.
Continues after the jump.
Skeeter may be the one offering to tell the maids' stories, but she ends up as a conduit rather than a guide. That is made clear when Aibileen brings out the notebook where she has been writing her story by herself; sooner or later she was going to tell it. It is also evident near the end of the film, when Aibileen and Minny assure Skeeter that, even if she is gone, they will take care of each other. Implicit is the understanding that they and their professional sisters have always done that, and always will.
In the film — directed by Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Stockett — Aibileen and Minny are maids to young women in the upper crust of Jackson society. Aibileen works for Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly), a young mother who has no idea how to deal with her toddler child, leaving Aibileen to serve as a surrogate mother while still dealing with the death of her own son. The outspoken Minny begins the film working for Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who rules local society with a deliberate meanness and a strong racist streak; after a falling-out with Hilly, Minny moves on to Celia (Jessica Chastain), a social outsider desperate to please everyone.
Also on the outside is Skeeter, physically unlike her social friends, who wants to be a writer far more than she wants to be a wife and mother. Looking for a story that will get her noticed by a New York editor (Mary Steenburgen), Skeeter seizes on the story of the maids. And in doing so, she also hopes to fill a gap in her own life.
Taylor's screenplay tries with mixed success to juggle all those characters and more, including Skeeter's mother (Allison Janney), Hilly's mom (Sissy Spacek) and Skeeter's childhood maid (Cicely Tyson). A few men move through as well, but they are by and large peripheral to the film. This is far more interested in the good, and bad, that women do, for themselves, each other and their children.
While taking some liberties with Stockett's book, the film does for the most part work admirably, and in Davis and Spencer it has two Oscar-worthy performances, as well as characters who might well have carried a different movie entirely on their own.
Stone is more of a problem, though not because she is a bad actress; she is quite good, as both this film and Crazy, Stupid, Love have demonstrated this summer. But despite all the tousled hair and unfashionable clothes, she is still far more attractive physically than the Skeeter I imagined in Stockett's pages — a significant difference.
Beyond that, Skeeter just is not as compelling a movie character as Aibileen and Minny, and there were times from early on when the movie spent time on Skeeter when I wanted to see more about the other two women. After all, their stories are what ultimately lift up the movie.