Monday, May 14, 2012

Review: The Help


Sometimes when I get into reviewing a movie, I get into a rut of what points I focus on and most of my reviews follow a basic structure that gets a little dull to write after a while, and I imagine rather unexciting to read. So this time around I’m going to just shoot from the hip as it were, and go at this review like a coffee chat. If it still strikes you as pompous and overly wordy, know that’s just the way I am.

So, The Help. I must say that this movie does an especially respectable job of not demonizing whites or deifying blacks, though it walks a steady line at times. The main antagonist of the movie, Hilly Holbrook, is an aristocratic white woman who is frequently accompanied by changeable, air-headed, Stepford-style wives. They all sit in their pro-social clubs working for the good of the community and chat neatly over their games of bridge, while railing against any sort of support for the maids callously dubbed “the help.” Hilly Holbrook in fact brings to mind Aunt Alexandra of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as they are both maddeningly blinded to the duality of their lives, yet despicably simple in their absolute determination to be so. Hilly pushes an agenda to have all homes employing a black maid to build a separate restroom with plywood walls, because “they carry different diseases than we do.” Honestly I wondered during the pauses when we refilled our drinks if Bryce Dallas Howard had to be extra nice to everyone between takes so that she wouldn’t be judged by the character she so perfectly plays.

Hilly leads a small troupe of other wealthy and bored young wives who lack the capacity to love their own children properly, let alone be asked to think on something so complex as the absurdity of their prejudices. Hilly herself finds her identity in her reputation as a model housewife and good citizen, which explains why she takes a certain prank of Skeeter’s so badly. Most of these ladies claim to be good church-going Christian women, but as a Christian woman, I found myself wanting to bark “evil racists!" at the screen. The perfectly infuriating portrayal of these women is only balanced by the movie’s likable protagonist Skeeter, a sweet and comical misfit named Celia, and her briefly-seen husband. That is why I say the movie walks a steady line—there are barely enough likable white characters to balance out the evil ones.

The real backbone of the movie are the maids Aibileen and Minny. Aibileen is played by Viola Davis, who captured my attention for her stirring performance in Doubt. Her character tenderly cares for her white employer’s toddler Mae Mobley who, despite her young age, clearly identifies Aibileen as her true mother. In Aibileen’s interviews with Skeeter, she specifically tells Skeeter to write that “Mrs. Leefolt should not be having babies.” Mrs. Leefolt treats her children the way a teenage girl treats a puppy— as an accessory that is fun to have on hand every now and then, but the minute they present an inconvenience, it’s too much trouble. As an example, Aibileen mentions that between the time she leaves work in the evenings and returns in the morning, Mae Mobley’s diaper is not changed in ten hours. Aibileen has no lack of passion about the injustices against her fellow maids or her employer’s complete deficit of parenting skills, but she keeps her head down and complies, unlike Minny.

I must say that I found Minny to be delightfully sassy and many of her scenes marked my favorite points in the movie, simply because her attitude and personality translate so clearly onscreen. Octavia Spencer deserved that Oscar win, hands down. She completely nailed the portrayal of Minny as a hard-working maid with fantastic defiance. She has a degree of discernment when it comes to standing up against her evil employer Hilly Holbrook, but she has enough nerve that ultimately she wins a great victory over Hilly, giving her a very devious upper hand. Minny pays a high price for her cheek, but she is also rewarded for her kindness towards Celia. It’s hard not to root for Minny, even as Hilly scarfs down that chocolate pie…

You may have already gathered how infuriating and hilarious I found The Help. I won’t deny however that there were moments that my eyes misted, but I appreciate that the writers didn’t seem to be set on making The Help an emotional catharsis. It certainly has its moments that are tailored to be tearjerkers, but the movie isn’t built on preachy lines designed to be painted in cutesy decals on your walls. The emotionally low moments are such because as a viewer you really care about the individuals onscreen and feel their pain thanks to the immaculate acting.

All in all I would classify The Help as quality entertainment that hits the bull’s-eye in drama, comedy, and social commentary, sometimes simultaneously. Moments of extreme drama are met with well-timed comic relief, and the inevitable tear-jerking moments are balanced out with laughter. Most of the time at least.

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