The Help review, The Help Blu-ray review
Starring
Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek
Director
Tate Taylor
The Help

Reviewed by Jason Zingale

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t may not be the kind of movie you’d normally expect to see during the blockbuster-filled summer season, but there’s something refreshing about watching a well-made drama like “The Help” after months of being inundated with CGI-fueled action movies, raunchy R-rated comedies and kid’s films. Disney is certainly taking a big chance by releasing such a blatant piece of Oscar bait several months before awards season gets underway, but then again, it’s hard to imagine the film actually garnering any serious attention. Though the story is good and the performances are even better, “The Help” is really no different than Disney's typical inspirational crowd-pleasers, even if it offers a more unique take on the civil rights movement.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, the film stars Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a privileged college graduate who comes home to discover that her beloved maid (played by the wonderful Cicely Tyson) is no longer working for her family. While all the other girls in her social circle have since gotten married and had children, Skeeter has no interest in the domestic life, instead getting a job at the local paper writing a column about household cleaning secrets. But when Skeeter turns to her friends’ maid, Abilene (Viola Davis), for assistance with the column, she gets the idea of writing a book about the real-life stories of “the help.” Though no one except Abilene and her sassy friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) will even risk talking about their white bosses at first, in fear that they’ll be killed for speaking out, they have a sudden change of heart when a fellow maid is wronged by the town’s evil queen bee, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).

Hilly is the kind of character that white guilt is born from; a monstrous socialite who has no problem allowing a black maid to take care of her children, but is so disgusted by the thought of her guests having to share a toilet with someone of color that she tries to pass an initiative requiring all households to build a separate bathroom (which is really just a glorified outhouse) for their maids. Director Tate Taylor – adapting the bestselling novel of the same name by childhood friend Kathryn Stockett – tries to steer the movie away from playing like some kind of Great White Apology, but it’s inevitable that some people are going to feel that way, especially when a white girl is the hero of the story.

Taylor and Stockett would probably argue otherwise (after all, Abilene is the narrator, not Skeeter), but therein lies the film's major problem – there’s no definitive protagonist. While splitting those duties between Skeeter, Abilene and Minny may have worked in the book, the movie gets a little chaotic jumping back and forth between each woman. Thankfully, all three actresses are exceptional in their respective roles, although they’re hardly the only ones worth talking about. Howard does an excellent job of making the audience absolutely hate Hilly, Sissy Spacek has some great comedic moments as her far less racist mother, and Jessica Chastain nearly steals the whole movie as a ditzy trophy wife who’s banished from the social clubs simply because Hilly doesn’t like her.

In fact, for a movie with so many strong female characters, the one thing it’s missing is a fully developed male character (they’re either mindless bread-winners or faceless women beaters), although considering that Stockett’s novel focuses primarily on the relationships between white housewives and their black maids, that’s not surprising. It’s also probably a blessing in disguise, because “The Help” is already too long as it is without any more characters to follow. Taylor seems to have gotten so caught up in staying true to his friend’s book that he’s failed to make the kind of editorial decisions that might have made for a more focused narrative. But it's not as heavy-handed as most films about race relations, and though "The Help" still falls prey to some embarrassing clichés, its stellar cast helps it to rise above movie-of-the-week territory.


Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:

It’s a little strange that writer/director Tate Taylor (or anyone else, for that matter) didn’t record an audio commentary for the Blu-ray release of “The Help,” but he does appear front and center in the disc’s main featurette, which details the origin of the novel, his friendship with author Kathryn Stockett, and getting the movie made. Also included is a short discussion with a group of maids from Mississippi about their past experiences, a handful of deleted scenes with introductions by Taylor, and a DVD copy of the movie.

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