Based on Kathryn Stockett’s extremely popular 2009 novel, The Help addresses troubling historical circumstances in a rosy, crowd-pleasing way that provides more entertainment value than insight. By packaging racism and segregation in a sort of theme-park fantasia, the movie threatens to diminish the very real problems it purports to address, but it also makes them more accessible for a mainstream audience. Whatever The Help loses in complexity, it often makes up for in empathy.
A big part of that is thanks to the talented cast, led by Emma Stone as Skeeter Phelan, a recent college graduate in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, where her fairly progressive ideas about race and gender roles are met with indifference or outright hostility. Shunning the entreaties of her mother (Allison Janney) and high-society friends to quickly find a husband and settle down, Skeeter gets a job at the local newspaper and takes it upon herself to write a book telling the stories of the city’s African-American maids. While Stone has a sort of modern feel to her performance that can occasionally be distracting, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are completely captivating as the two local housekeepers who are brave enough to tell Skeeter their stories, even though the consequences could be severe. The wise black woman who imparts important life lessons to her white charges is a cliché, but Davis and Spencer take their characters beyond that, giving them dimensions that may not have been apparent in writer-director Tate Taylor’s screenplay.
It’s disappointing, then, that so much of the rest of the movie is broad and cartoonish, from the local queen-bee socialite (Bryce Dallas Howard), who’s so evil she might as well have an underground lair, to the juvenile antics that constitute the bulk of the comic relief. And despite the talk of the characters facing serious, even life-threatening dangers, the movie wraps up neatly, with the impression that Skeeter has almost single-handedly solved racism in Mississippi. That’s a nice feeling to take out of the theater with you, but it does a disservice to the vibrant characters with whom you’ve just spent the last two hours.