Not having read the book, I went into “The Help” with fresh eyes. Based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is an engrossing story brought to life on film with extraordinary performances and the kind of storytelling that has been lacking in more recent movies. At around two hours and twenty minutes, it’s safe to say the film is on the longer side, however the pace of the feature never drags as each scene, each moment compels the audience and adds to the overall story it’s trying to tell. The book wasn’t a small book either, with over five hundred pages in paperback, so it’s safe to assume that a large majority of the book had to be cut to fit the two hours plus running time. Fans of the book, and there are many, may feel short changed when watching the film, but not having read the book, I can attest to how well it stands apart on its own.
Set in Mississippi during the 1960’s, “The Help” explores the stories and lives of several women, most of whom are maids, who have compelling and often heartbreaking stories to share. The film is enjoyable and does offer some profound, some tender, and even some heart wrenching moments. But bare in mind that this is a feel good film, not a documentary.
Fresh out of college, Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone) doesn’t see the world quite like her bridge playing friends, Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly ) and Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). They have husbands, houses, children and maids to help them keep their lives running smoothly. When Skeeter starts listening to how the social leader of the group, Hilly talks about refusing to use the same bathroom as her maid, on top of several other prejudice comments, Skeeter decides she’d like to write a story from the help’s point of view.
Skeeter approaches Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) to see if she can interview her for her book. At first Aibileen is reluctant, given the many race laws and the violent attacks that are taking place in Mississippi, but after witnessing some unjust actions towards her friends, and hearing a sermon about standing up for what is right, she agrees. So begins the story of “The Help.” The film focuses on Skeeter and Aibileen as they work together to share a point of view that had never been shared before. “The Help” is about the maids relationships with and points-of-view of the families they work for, and doesn’t really explore their home life’s too greatly. One area where the film fell short was conveying just how much trouble Aibileen, Skeeter and the other women who share their stories could get into. While it’s mentioned several times, it never feels as risky as it truly would have been.
The story branches off and follows Aibileen as she cares for Elizabeth’s daughter, since Elizabeth has very little to do with her. It also follows the story of Aibileen’s best friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) who Hilly fired for using her bathroom. Minny finds revenge in her own way, and eventually gets work with social outcast, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) who adores Minny. Skeeter’s story is that of the observer, taking in the stories of women who work for her friend’s families. She has her own storyline, part of which wasn’t really necessary in the film (like the story of her relationship that never has room to fully develop), but the real beauty of her character is in her reaction to the injustice around her. In the end though, it’s Minny, Aibileen and the other maids who make the movie great.
“The Help,” is a really wonderful film. Is it groundbreaking or a true first-hand look at being a maid in the 1960’s, probably not. But it does offer a glimpse at injustice and also offers a look at how two different women can come together for a common good. What really makes “The Help” as enjoyable as it was are the performances. I was initially surprised to see Emma Stone cast in such a serious role, but she gave such a wonderful, emotional performance. Octavia Jackson is perfect as Minny and Jessica Chastain stands out as Celia. It’s Viola Davis, however, who gives the most memorable performance. Her subtlety and warmth truly shine here.
Whether you’ve read the book or not, “The Help” is worth checking out. With great performances across the board, wonderful direction and writing, and a truly memorable story, it’s one of the more enjoyable films of the year.
VIDEO: The film's 1.85:1 (1080p) presentation remained a delight, with crisp, detailed images. Sharpness and detail remained consistently pleasing throughout the running time. A few traces of pixelation were noticed, but no distracting issues were seen. Colors remained bright and warm, with no smearing or other faults.
SOUND: The film's DTS-HD 5.1 presentation is largely dialogue-driven, with surrounds providing light reinforcement of the score and some minor environmental ambience. Audio quality was pleasing, with clear, well-recorded dialogue and music.
“Making of ‘The Help’: From Friendship To Film” - As far as making of featurette’s go, this is an interesting one with some further insight to the inspiration behind the book, the director, actors, filming locations, and more. Fans of the book and film may enjoy.
“In Their Own Words: A Tribute To The Maids of Mississippi” - Tate Taylor, Octavia Jackson and a group of African American maids from Mississippi talk about their experiences.
Deleted Scenes - The deleted scenes include an introduction by director, Tate Taylor. It’s nice to have the introductions, as they offer some reasoning behind why the scenes aren’t included, as well as other information regarding the scenes.
Mary J. Blige’s music video for “The Living Proof” is also included.
The DVD version only includes two deleted scenes with introduction and Mary J. Blige’s music video.
Final Thoughts: Whether you’ve read the book or not, “The Help” is worth checking out. With great performances, story, and writing, the film is one of the more enjoyable of the year.
The Film B+