I was one of those people who used to look at all the women reading The Help and wondered how come everyone is raving about this book. That was until I had an amazingly long business trip debacle that forced me to buy a full-price book in those airport bookstores. I went with the biggest book that I was interested in and that ended up being The Help by Kathryn Stockett. While it is a large book, it is an easy read, and I ended up really liking it. I knew The Help was coming out in movie theatres within the next few months, and from what I had seen in the trailers and featurettes, it seemed to be a faithful translation of the book.
I was pretty excited to see the film. The screenplay was written by Tate Taylor, who is a childhood friend of author Kathryn Stockett. He also directed the film. The film also boasts an amazing cast. How could this film adaptation of The Help go wrong?
It did not go wrong, and it was far from bad, horrible, or any synonyms of those words. If you have read the book, my guess is that you will like or love the film. If you have not read the book, I am thinking you will love the film.
The film follows Skeeter (Emma Stone) as she returns to Jackson, Mississippi after graduating from Ole Miss. The film takes place in the 1960’s. Just about every middle-class household and up has a maid. Typically during this time period and in the South, the maids were African-American women. They did not just cook and clean, but often took care of the family’s children and basically raised them. They did this for very little pay, no vacation, six day work weeks, and very little respect from the families. Skeeter was raised by one of those maids, Constantine (Cicely Tyson). When Skeeter returns home, she finds that Constantine no longer works for her family, but she is getting the run around as to what actually happened. Skeeter wants to be a writer and finds a book editor, Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen), in NYC who has taken on mentoring and encouraging her. Skeeter decides to write a book from the perspective of the maids, but she has to find maids who are willing to spill their stories to her. She finds one maid at first. Aibileen (Viola Davis) works for one of Skeeter’s friends, Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly). Aibileen’s best friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer) then joins the book team after some hesistation. Minny used to work for Skeeter’s best friend, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), but after a forbidden use of Hilly’s toilet, she now works for the social outcast Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain).
I could go on and on about the story of the film, but I think watching the trailer or reading a synopsis may be a better idea. The story has lots of little other stories and characters mixed in with it that make it more than a straightforward main character driven film. There are really three main characters: Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. The film alternates in telling their stories. In parts of the film, Aibileen narrates. Considering the book is told in alternating chapters by those three characters, the film stays faithful to the book.
The acting is so superb in this film. Viola Davis deserves an acting award nomination for her portrayal of Aibileen. You can tell that she fully immersed herself in her character, heart and soul. She is truly one of the greatest actresses that is out there today. Octavia Spencer has been in some minor supporting roles in films and on television. Octavia through Minny provides most of the comic relief of the film. She is a great fit for Minny and has the sass that is needed for her. I thought Emma Stone was pretty good as Skeeter. I think she did a great job, but I had a hard time not being distracted by the wigs she wears. Byrce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook brought out the hate in the audience very well. She channeled a racist, greater than thou, Southern woman exactly as how it should have been portrayed. I am very glad that they kept Celia Foote as a large role. I was a bit hesitant to see how they would make Jessica Chastain look like my version of not-too-bright, dumb blond Celia. They accomplished it 100 percent. Jessica Chastain did portray her well and had the same ditzy, aloof personality I expected.
There were some small supporting roles that are of note as well. Sissy Spacek as Hilly Holbrook’s mother, Missus Walters, is absolutely hysterical. Every single time she is on screen, there was a laugh, and a loud laugh at that. Allison Janney plays Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter’s mother. While her character is not in the best of health, she still gave the overbearing Southern mother a great voice. She only wants what is best for her daughter, but that includes getting married instead of a career. Janney also has some great lines, especially towards the end of the film.
The story of The Help is a serious one. African Americans in the 1960’s were not treated well at all and were the subject of Jim Crow laws resulting in demeaning segregation in public areas. They were not regarded as equals to whites in any way, and they were taken advantage of by whites. The film addresses the subject, but mixes the needed humor in with it. Please be aware that this is not a comedy. I heard people laughing at inappropriate times at the screening I attended, obviously confusing something that seems outlandish now with something that was common in the 1960’s.
It is hard not to analyze a film that is based on a book that you have read. The reader knows what the film is missing and if the film changed anything. I sometimes think it is better to read the book after you have seen the film. The film is pretty faithful to the book. They left a lot of extra details out and additional plot points that did not really affect the outcome of the film. I know I was surprised to see Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte Phelan, already sick at the beginning of the film. The film also does not go into the family background of Skeeter’s love interest, Stewart. Those who have read the book will be aware of the background story surrounding Constantine’s daughter. None of that is addressed, and they simply give her a “normal” daughter. Considering Skeeter in the book is constantly asking what happened to Constantine and that was something of constant interest to Skeeter, I wish the film had delved more into that subject. I am sure the book readers will always think of something they really liked and wished made it into the film. The number one thing from the book that I am glad they kept in is Aibileen telling Mae Mobley, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
The Help is a very poignant film. It addresses a subject some of us have experience with, and others need to be see what it was like. While it has its funny moments, there is a real truth to any emotions seen on screen. That emotion translates very well to the audience. I had tears running down my face at least a couple of times. Hopefully, those who love the film will want to pick up the book. The Help deserves whatever nominations the film has coming this next awards season. Hopefully, it will not be forgotten.
I give The Help 4.5 “Chocolate Pies” out of 5.