How far are films willing to go in depicting the grimy, ugly side of tough social issues? I think it depends on how uncomfortable the filmmakers believe that audience members will be with it. Some of us would like to convince ourselves that filmmakers care more about making something artistically good than about satisfying the cravings of those who pay for movie tickets, but that's not the reality. Plenty of films have given us devastating, hard-hitting portrayals of the Holocaust. But that's only because the Holocaust is 1) something that people consider to be in the past, over and done with, and 2) something that everyone agrees was monstrous. I don't think the same can be said for films about the general struggle for racial equality. Problems of racism can't be considered to be "in the past, over and done with," because there's no doubt that they still take place today, and as for whether racial inequality is or isn't "monstrous," there are still people out there who don't believe that whites and nonwhites should have equal rights. Therefore, even though The Help covers events that took place decades ago, the film is never too harsh in depicting them; if it were, it's bound to make people uncomfortable, and that's the last thing we wanna do to our precious ticket buyers, right? However, because it's still an engaging enough and well-constructed dramatic offering, and because it features an astounding performance from Viola Davis, this still deserves a recommendation.
It's the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. Eugenia (Emma Stone) is affectionately known as "Skeeter" among her family and friends. She hasn't exactly followed the conventional route taken by white ladies of this era. She went to college and hasn't yet gotten married. Writing is her passion - she'd like to be a journalist or a novelist, or both. Having graduated from college, she has now returned to her hometown, and she has discovered that the maid who raised her and took care of her is gone from the house. Her parents are hesitant to explain why. Perhaps as a result of this event, Skeeter starts taking a closer look at the dynamics between her white female friends and their black maids. The subjugation is evident as hell, and one gets the impression that Skeeter is only noticing this now because the college experience has opened her mind to this sort of thing. As a way of hopefully intertwining her interest in being both a journalist and a writer of fiction, Skeeter wishes to interview "the help," which is the name used to refer to the aforementioned maids, in order to get their point of view on the job they carry out and how they feel about it. Skeeter hopes to take the material she gets from the interviews and turn it into a set of stories in which, of course, she'll use names different from those of the real people. Understandably, though, the anonymity isn't quite enough to comfort Aibileen (Viola Davis), one of the maids that Skeeter wishes to interview. The possibility that something she says could possibly be traced back to her and that her boss may find out that she's talking about what her experience as a maid as like is simply too risky.
As you may have guessed from the above plot description, The Help is entirely a dialogue-based cinematic offering, but don't let it dissuade you, because the dialogue is constantly engaging and never hits a false note. One of the most glaring problems with the movie, though, is something that accompanies the dialogue much more often than it doesn't: in about 90% of the film's scenes, a score that is reminiscent of Hallmark movies of the week has been inserted unnecessarily. I understand that filmmakers sometimes may believe that films that are strictly dialogue-based need that, but The Help doesn't need it in the least bit. The strength of the dialogue and the terrific performances are enough to make this a completely lively and engrossing picture, so if anything, the over-sentimental score is a distraction. It's like a mosquito in the room, and in this case, the mosquito enters the film's several rooms much more often than it should.
Emma Stone makes the correct career choice here of showing that she's got range, without quite going too far in making a jarring change in the persona she usually plays. She displays the same infectious spunk that we've seen elsewhere, but she makes the right decision to downplay it and make it more serious this time around. As one of the other maids, Octavia Spencer is borderline hilarious in plenty of scenes. Bryce Dallas Howard plays one of the domineering white housewives, and while I have to admit that I've generally disliked her work in the past, she makes for a MOSTLY very solid villain here, although there are times (and this is more the script's fault than it is hers) that she inevitably feels like a caricature more than anything else - there's only so much gasping, lip-pursing and looking constipated that someone can do before it starts looking artificial. But The Help is Viola Davis' film. This is an emotionally deft, tremendous performance, and validation that her work in Doubt wasn't a mere fluke. It should also be mentioned that one of the film's strongest aspects is how Davis and Spencer play off each other as the two maids, one being the more serious and preoccupied one, and the other being the spicier and more comical one. I suspect I would've absolutely loved a film in which the two of them worked as maids in the same house and it all focused on the dynamics between them.
The Help is unnecessarily overlong and doesn't go too far into the dark and painful waters it could've entered. As I mentioned, Bryce Dallas Howard's villainous character at times becomes a caricature, and that's no accident. Since the issue of racism has yet to vanish, the film doesn't want to feel like too much of an indictment of those who are watching it. White audiences need a fabricated villain, in order to blame that person instead of themselves ("Wow, that woman is ridiculous! I'm totally not like her!"). Before I start sounding offensive, I should mention that I'm neither white nor black (nor American), and therefore, consider that I can give a reasonably objective assessment of this situation and of the way the film goes about it. In addition, this isn't really meant as me attacking the film's audience, but rather, as a way of evaluating why I think the film went about things the way it did in order to not stir uncomfortable waters. Still, the effectiveness of the film's dramatic framework, combined with Davis' wonderful work, is enough to trump all the sanitizing that goes on here, at least to the point of making it a worthwhile film.