Thursday, 25 August 2011

“You is kind, you is smart, you is important”

The Help: directed and written by Tate Taylor
It’s become difficult to separate Tate Taylor’s The Help from the plethora of internet argument that has followed it since its release.There was a blogathon some time back questioning whether or not films have an ethical service to pay to viewers. I think no, I’ve always maintained that art shouldn’t be impugned with having to hold some sort of utilitarian purposes before it could be endorsed. Still, I don’t want to turn this into a rote “response” review, because that really establishes little of how I feel about the film. The Help is, at its root, an ensemble drama created from a web of interwoven storylines. Like any ensemble the overall attempts at entwining sometimes fall limp and it’s that dichotomy between the storylines that land and those that falter that exists as the main crutch of The Help. Even though, conversely, it’s the rapport of the cast even amidst the occasional unwieldy plot arcs that puts it back on its feet again.
The place is Jackson, Mississippi and the time is the sixties. Historically it’s a time marked by the overwhelming social tension in the South. But, The Help isn’t really interested in being a civil rights’ drama even though it hovers on the very racial boundaries which define the era. Like the book within the movie, it’s – in theory – a testament to the black maids who were irreplaceable to the white women of the era, a book which grows from an idea Skeeter Phelan decides upon when tasked with impressing a New York editor. Multifaceted stories like these are the sort of ideal vehicles for actors to whet their talents working opposite each other but there’s a sense that Taylor is so excited at the chance to get these women doing some actressing; (and with Sissy Spaceck, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Alison Janney and a slew of others who could blame him?) that he falters on the reason that they get together in the first place.
This isn’t a Traffic or Crash situation where grander themes and chance occurrences tie the cast together, it’s Skeeter’s book which is the overarching binder of it all and the most notable mistake of the entire thing is that Skeeter’s motivation remain specious for most of the film. It adds to the dramatic oeuvre to have an emotional revelation at the film’s climax, but it would have made more dramatic profundity as the impetus for the entire film. It’s because of this flaccidity in her storyline that makes it fall limp around the others – even if her performance is as charming as allowed. The film opens asking Aibeleen – the maid who provides the film’s narrative voice – what it’s like taking care of children of the whites when hers are at home being taken care by others. It’s in the middle of the story and we suspect there’s grief in this woman. But, it’s an important question because that is the crux a hefty portion of the story rests on. The relationship the maids have with their employers.
Taylor has his work cut out for him because The Help attempts to toe that delicate line between humour and drama which is already difficult enough without the added difficulty of doing so with in a time when that tenuous balance is attempting to address something with as much gravity. Unsurprisingly, he approaches the issue of the genre mixing with the sort of occasional hokey plotting that marks those well intended ensemble dramas. The thing about being hokey is that sometimes it works and I’m immediately reminded of Herbert Ross and the work he did on Steel Magnolias - treading a wellworn path but occasionally breathing surprising amounts of sincerity into it through the performances. And, boy those performances are something. Mostly. It’s the trio of Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and a luminous Jessica Chastain who thrills with a role painted all too broadly to be deserve such a earnest handling.
The film soars when it touches on these three characters. Not that it does poorly with the supporting cast; but there’s something vaguely off. Bryce Dallas Howard creates a villain that’s so unrelenting in her evilness that in a way I feel she subverts any racial aspirations of the film. By having the main antagonist to the blacks be a thoroughly evil specimen Taylor seems to forget that nice good people could be just as racist. But, it’s not really a movie about the white racist people so it doesn’t irk as much as it could. Ultimately I’m not even sure it’s a film about Skeeter’s book. Every wants to feel as if they’re part of something and that the work they’re doing is significant. Celia and Minny forge a bond, Skeeter hones her craft and Aibileen was getting that, in part, from the children she reared but ultimately it just wasn’t enough. When she walks out that house at the end, though, even though the future is tenuous you get the feeling that Aibileen’s finally believes what she’s been telling Elizabeth’s daughter all that time. Telling her story just might have been the most cathartic thing for her. And, it’s not because of Skeeter really – Skeeter is just a peripheral inclusion. Aibeleen is the film’s crux, Skeeter is just the help.

Downgraded to  a B-


Brandon B. said...

One of the better films from this uneven year for sure -- funny, genuine (for the most part), dramtically compelling, and emotionally engaging. I agree that Skeeter is just the help in the end, and that this is truly Aibeleen's story and journey. It doesn't really help that Stone's performance doesn't give any real pull; shrinking down and out of character when the big gals flood the screen with confidence, humor, and emotional depth. Miscast, to say the least, and unable to coast on her appealing charisma. And I couldn't stand her flat, untextured southern drawl.

But the film does hit upon a social commentary that is relevant today but has propelled into different areas than the occurances in '63. The tensions between blacks and whites, whether its veiled or not. The film works because this is a social issue that hasn't gone away; it may not be so direct, obviously, in many ways, but it still lingers. Whether we want to believe it or not.

Despite a few clumsy, heavy handed notes and a running time that could have been trimmed, this is a more than solid movie. The audience that I saw it with seemed so engaged, even breaking into hoots and applause at times -- epecially when Minny delievers her very special "chocolate" pie! I didn't expect a crowd pleaser, but Im happy it's one.

Everything's elevated by Viola Davis of course, who finds emotional dimensions when the rest of the gang seems to have run out. An actress who embodies intellegence and emotional integrity across her face and through her voice, nobody else could have been fit for this part. An Oscar is in order. But the one line reading that resonantes the most is in the finale...

"You're a Godless woman!..."

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I loved this movie so much, I could not even be disappointed by Emma Stone being the weakest link. I disagree on Bryce Dallas Howard's character being so completely evil, though. Sure, she's a Queen Bee bitch, but I thought Taylor at leats tried to give her some softer moments. I love the scene where she tells Skeeter not to think she isn't good enough just because her momma made her feel that way. It's there that I go, "Oh, THAT'S why they've been friends for so long." Anyway, I adored this movie.

Robert said...

Amazing review as always. I also agree with what you said about Bryce's character though I think that moment at the very end where Viola tells her off gives her character a little bit more depth. It's not amazing, but it's helpful. As for the rest of the cast, your selections are great! Chastain, Davis and Spencer are absolutely the best and they make the film totally work despite its flaws. I also loved Sissy Spacek.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

brandon viola isn't quite my favourite, but everything you say about her is so on point. one sigh at end establishes so much emotion.

walter i get you, but the thing is her niceness is woefully underdeveloped (naturally some collateral damage happens in the large ensemble) i really wanted them to make her a rounder character so the meanness would have been that more profound. maybe it's because even when she says those few nice things, she still seems to be playing "mean girl"

robert ah yes, sissy is FABULOUS!