Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 debut, The Help, was leapt upon by the American reading public with the kind of fervour usually reserved for sparkly vampires, boy wizards, and clunky art-history based thrillers about Jesus’ missus. Stockett’s 1963-set tale of race relations, courage, and friendship between a group of women in Jackson, Mississippi became a stateside book group hit which sold in its millions.
Since the US summer release of Tate Taylor’s film adaptation, The Help has done similarly good business, beating superheroes, cowboys and aliens to a three week spot at the top of the American box office.
It’s easy to see why. The Help is an entertaining, very well-acted, affecting film. It’s got more than a few laughs, more than a few great performances, and its message is ultimately a comforting one: have the courage to stand up and tell the truth, and you’ll be rewarded. What the story leaves out or glosses over in its race-relations-lite plot might be irksome, but if you’re able to square that away, you’ll have fun with the film.
The Help is the story of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who agrees to tell Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), about her experiences as a black maid to white families, for a book written from the perspective of the titular help. Helped along by sassy Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), Skeeter and Aibileen put together an anthology of maids’ stories, publishing them anonymously and sending ripples through the town of Jackson.
For all its bags of fun and bright scenery, one thing The Help is woefully short on is realism. While, as a general rule, it’s redundant to criticise films for being unrealistic, audiences should know up front that despite its civil rights setting, The Help is not a social document. It portrays the segregated South with a bright sheen and a cheery gloss.
Some parts of its sugar-coating stick in the craw more than others – a comic montage cuts away at one point to a hilarious scene in a black women’s prison, which looks more like a jolly sleepover than a penitentiary – but once that’s been digested, it becomes an easy film to like.
In the vein of Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Café or even Forrest Gump with the zany turned right down, The Help doesn’t set out to confront its audience with the horrors of racism in the South, but instead to tell an uplifting story about friendship and standing up to bullies.
Essentially, The Help is to the story of 1960s American civil rights what the musical Annie is to the plight of children in care; it’s shiny, it’s pretty, and it makes it all seem like quite a bit of fun. The peril the women put themselves in by taking such a risk in the South comes across only once, before being brushed away with the message that the KKK is nothing that can’t be dealt with if you’ve enough chutzpah and a good friend on your arm.
What is sure to distract the more cynical viewer from the film’s saccharine manipulation is the strength of its performances. They’ll be fighting over the Oscar nominations for this one. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are the best bets for Academy recognition, each turning in very strong performances, one wise and measured, the other feisty and funny.
Bryce Dallas Howard is great as the hateful Hilly Holbrook, the bitch cheerleader of Jackson’s Junior League and the worst kind of self-righteous racist.
The always-likeable Emma Stone is as good as ever playing gangly, frizzy, modern, smart and ambitious Skeeter, the only one of her Jackson pals who went to university to get a degree and not a husband.
Alison Janney and Sissy Spacek steal every scene they’re in. Really, the list for acting plaudits goes on and on.
The stand-out surprise though is Jessica Chastain, as white-trash made good Celia Foote. I’d come to associate Chastain with ethereal elegance and restraint for her roles in The Tree Of Life and The Debt, but it seems she’s every bit as capable in comedy. Of all the characters made recognisable from Stockett’s novel, Chastain inhabited Celia Foote entirely and with such charisma that, as in the book, you long for her lively scenes with Minny to return.
The film’s opening 20 minutes are easily its weakest point, when its exposition is being laid on with a trowel, but when The Help gets into the writing of the book, it finds its stride. Indeed, had Taylor and Stockett been less generous with the sugary stuff come its ending, the film might have been quite as satisfying as one of the many deep-fried Southern meals laid out on its tables.
Speaking of which, The Help’s gloss isn’t just given to its race relations story, but to its brightly saturated period sets. The film shows off its decade as if it’s a shiny red Cadillac, with polish and gleam. A rush of contemporary 60s tunes from Johnny Cash to Twist And Shout hammer home its period setting just in case you’d let it slip your mind.
Big, bright, and a bit too beautiful for the ugly story at its heart perhaps, The Help heaps laughter and tears on its audiences, who will no doubt come in their droves. If you can mentally tune out the irksome sense of being sold a glossy historical half-truth, the film’s performances and punch-lines are well worth a watch.