Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Help (2011) ***½

It’s movie awards season, which is nice, because instead of hearing about the latest “Transformers” movie, everyone is talking about movies that are actually good. The movies that are designed to compete for these awards tend to be edgy, intellectual, or independent, in various combinations. There’s always at least one for each year, though, that is very traditional, straightforward, and made for the masses. Films like “Forrest Gump,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Blind Side” represent simplicity and earnestness in a genre known for complexity and irony. This season that movie is “The Help,” the funny, heartwarming story of black maids and white socialites in segregated, 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi.

Emma Stone plays Skeeter, a headstrong debutante who returns to Jackson from college to find that Constantine, the black woman who basically raised her, is gone, with no explanation. Of course, it’s obvious to the heartbroken Skeeter that her parents have, for some reason, fired Constantine. Meanwhile, Skeeter gets back into her lifelong social circle, dominated by sorority types who dropped out of college once they found a husband. While Skeeter, who wants to be a writer, gets a job at the local paper, her friends raise babies and keep house, except they don’t really do those things; their maids do. Skeeter gets a good look at how rudely her friends treat their maids, some of whom actually raised these girls, and she gets the idea of writing a book about what life and work is like for these maids.

This is no easy task in the early ‘60’s. The maids fear for their jobs and their freedom. In addition to the usual Jim Crow laws against interracial marriage and such, Mississippi apparently also had a law making it a crime to write anything advocating racial equality. It was also illegal for an unescorted white woman to enter the black part of town. Skeeter overcomes these obstacles, convincing several maids to share their stories for a book that will shake Jackson society to its core.

I resisted seeing “The Help” for a while, figuring that I knew exactly what I was going to see, and for the most part I was right. There was one character I did not see coming, however, the lonely misfit Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). From a poor family, she marries a successful man from Jackson high society, but the rich bitches won’t accept her as one of their own. She is a poignant, but often hilarious character, and her relationship with her maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) is very sweet. Otherwise, there are no huge surprises. The rich women are terrible, while the maids are noble. The movie’s tears are well-balanced by laughter. All the acting is superb. Viola Davis (who plays the main maid character), Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain all have well-earned Oscar nominations, but the whole cast deserves kudos.

It’s possible, I suppose, that some people’s attitudes about race might change as a result of seeing “The Help,” but I don’t know how likely that is at this point in the game. For most folks, the movie will simply serve as funny, heartwarming entertainment. This is an un-nuanced story about a certain aspect of the civil rights struggle, with plenty of happy endings to go around. Nothing life-changing here, but if you get a chance to see it, it’s a good time.

3.5 stars out of 5

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