Oh boy, a mid-’60s Period Piece with a Message. And yet The Help is far from the dreary, preachy tearjerker it could have been.
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is a maid in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, and has been for most of her life, like her friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) and many other black women in town. And as you might expect, life is pretty hard. You hear now about life under Jim Crow, but it’s impossible to get a sense of it looking backwards. I’m sure I still have no real understanding, but it’s shocking to see how casually the women who employ them treat “the help”, and right in front of them as well.
And worst among them is the social queen, Ms. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who used to employ Minny — “inherited” from her mother (Sissy Spacek) — until she dared to use the indoor bathroom during a tornado. Hilly’s pet project is a bill to force all white households to put in a separate toilet for their maids and gardeners and so on, and yet she refers to “real racists” as if she isn’t.
But there are are some who aren’t so bad. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) has just graduated from Ole Miss and dreams of being a journalist or a novelist or both, though her mother (Allison Janney) wishes she’d just settle down and get married like all the other girls in town. Skeeter is stunned to find that the maid who raised her (Cicely Tyson) has been fired with no explanation. She takes a job ghostwriting a cleaning column at the Jackson Journal to get the experience she needs to get a writing job for Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen) in New York; this puts her face-to-face with the ugly realities she’d left behind, and into close contact with Aibileen, who she starts pumping for stories about life as a maid.
It’s not just high ideals that lead to such friendships; there are also social outcasts like Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who’s the only one willing to hire Minny after Hilly starts smearing her name among the “proper” ladies of the Junior League. And if anyone needs help keeping house it’s Celia.
It’s these friendships — and the support between Minny and Aibileen — that makes this film such a joy, even as we watch bad go to worse in the middle of the civil rights struggle. And Skeeter is there, doing what she can to give voice to a voiceless, struggling community.
The actresses all rise to the material. Davis and Spencer form a solid duo, with Spencer’s wry comedic intensity and Davis’ wistful, weary stoicism playing marvelously off of each other. Chastain disappears into Celia, and this is easily Howard’s best performance. And then there’s Stone, who shows she can handle a serious role as well as she handles the more comedic ones. She’s even great without words, like when it begins to sink in just how much more is riding on her project than her own career.
The Help is charming even in its sadness. It provides a much-needed look back to remember not only how far we’ve come, but to help us realize how far we have left to go.
Worth It: definitely.
Bechdel Test: pass, and what a pass. There’s barely even a male character, those there are hardly speak to each other, and the women speak about almost anything besides men.