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AP Photo/Disney, Dale Robinette, File Photo
Octavia Spencer, right, and Viola Davis are shown in a scene from “The Help.”

'The Help': Movie works, even if you haven't read the book

Posted: September 22, 2011 - 2:24pm

“The Help”
DreamWorks SKG
2 hours, 26 minutes

“No, I haven’t read the book.” This is turning out to be the most common phrase I use when discussing this week’s southern civil rights dramedy, “The Help.” The was previously the most common phrase used when discussing the “Twilight” movies, but thankfully, these two cinematic experiences couldn’t be more different. It’s what happens when a book is so incredibly popular that it demands a film adaptation. Everybody’s read it. Or so I must assume from the conversations I’ve had.

I bring this up because inevitably there will be those that criticize the film based on changes made from the page to the screen. This is legitimate. I do it all the time, in fact, but since I haven’t read the book, I can judge the film on nothing but its own merits. Luckily it has merits aplenty.

Viola Davis is Aibileen Clark, a domestic servant in 1960s Mississippi. As she states in the opening narration, she’s raised 14 children, but only one of her own. Aibileen’s main job, aside from the cooking and cleaning, is the care and feeding of little Mae Mobley, only the latest in a string of white children she’s nurtured.

It’s this essential dichotomy that forms the backbone of “The Help.” Aibileen is frustrated by her station, her powerlessness, and the complete lack of respect she receives from the white debutantes in this relatively small town. But she loves Mae Mobley with all her heart. So what is one to do? Nothing. That is, until Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns to town after graduating from Ole Miss. Skeeter can’t stand the casual racism exhibited by her friends, and longs to come up with a story idea that will catapult her from her current job as Housecleaning Hints columnist to professional journalism.

While picking Aibileen’s brain for cleaning tips, it occurs to Skeeter that no one had yet presented the story of the help from their own point of view. Hundreds of women — maids, housekeepers, and nannies, all barely one step up from the slavery their great-grandparents had endured. If she could get Aibileen and some of her friends to anonymously tell their stories, and with the civil rights movement in full swing, “The Help” could be Skeeter’s ticket to the big time.

Unfortunately, as Aibileen and her friend Minny, played beautifully by Octavia Spencer, know all too well, Mississippi is not a place that looks kindly on black women speaking out of turn.

The strength of “The Help” is in a combination of excellent acting and powerful writing. The script takes a subject matter that could be dour and depressing, a kind of “Mississippi Burning” version of “Driving Miss Daisy,” but instead keeps it light while managing not to dilute the issue. Writer/director Tate Taylor deserves a lot of credit for focusing the story less on Skeeter, and more on Aibileen, Minny, and company.

A good script is nothing without talented actors, however, and “The Help” has them in spades. Most notable are Davis and Spencer, who get to carry the bulk of the drama and emotion. Octavia Spencer’s Minny is one of those roles that an actress dies for — it’s showy, well-written, and spans the gamut from hilarious to heart-wrenching. Viola Davis, however, takes the cake as far as emotionality. She makes you feel the weight of her situation in every scene, and whenever that weight lifts, so does the entire film.

Also very good is Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook. Howard gives one of her best performances, taking what could easily have been a cartoon villain, and gives her just a hint of humanity — enough that we don’t tune her out, but not so much to spoil her as one of the funniest parts of the movie.

Last, but not least, is a smaller role from Allison Janney, as Skeeter’s ailing mother. Janney does so much acting with her eyes, and she’s just phenomenal here. With a dearth of good female roles in mainstream movies, it wouldn’t surprise me if any of these women were nominated for an Oscar.

The weak link, relatively speaking, is actually Emma Stone in the ostensibly lead role of Skeeter. It’s not that Stone gives a poor performance, it’s just that she seems dropped right out of 2002. As a liberal Southern girl from a conservative background in the 1960s, Skeeter skews less right or left-wing than she does simply modern.

While the potential consequences of speaking out would be particularly dire, one small failing of “The Help” is that the tension never ramps up enough to bring those consequences home. I think this is intentional, the director’s intent being to create something more accessible and, frankly, fun, than a true exposé of the Jim Crow South. Still, the movie does, at times, seem a little fluffy. That said, I enjoyed it immensely — a nice way to transition into the serious season of award contenders.

“The Help” may well turn out to be one of those rare literary adaptations that actually transcends the page — or so I’ve heard. I haven’t read the book.

Grade: A-

“The Help” is rated PG-13 for language, implied violence, and adult situations.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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