The Help

If there’s one thing I took away from The Help it’s this: the 35-55 year-old women demographic really likes poop jokes. A lot. While there’s only one poop joke in the film, it’s repeated ad nauseum, and each repetition garnered boisterous guffaws of laughter. It’s some needed comic relief in an otherwise serious and somber look at a civil rights movement in 1960s Mississippi.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) has just returned home from college and intends on being a writer. Her first assignment is at the local newspaper writing Ann Landers style columns about housekeeping – a topic that Skeeter has only a passing knowledge of. Enlisting the help of her friend’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis), Skeeter learns valuable cleaning tips and secrets while also becoming inspired to write something more important – life from Aibileen’s perspective.

The Help is a richly characterized portrait of institutionalized racism in the Deep South with strong and diverse characters. The standout of the film is Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron’s daughter) as the villainous Hilly Holbrook, a “godless woman” proud of her homespun initiative to require maids to use private bathrooms located outside the house. Hiding beneath the veneer of etiquette and charitable balls (the money goes to support the children of Africa), Hilly is a venomous and vindictive character using her social standing to exact revenge on her tenacious maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) and Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain – who looks oddly alike to Howard) a woman she vilifies for reputedly stealing the heart of her beau. Naturally, the poop joke comes at her expense.

Skeeter’s project is met with skepticism and fear. Telling the truth about their lives and employers doesn’t just threaten these women’s jobs – it endangers their lives. Aibileen is the first maid to open up to Skeeter, telling her story in carefully measured doses until events in the community spur her to bare her soul. Her courage creates a ripple, and the other maids, led by the outspoken and fiery Minny, contribute their own stories to the book. It may be a small step, but the first one is all it takes.

The Help falters with Skeeter, a bland character who is only given two emotions – somber professionalism while taking down the stories of injustice, or cathartic crying. She’s supposed to be the anchor of the film, but Aibileen is the narrator and any of the other characters (including the similarly drawn Celia Foote) are more interesting. It’s a shame really, because Skeeter has a strong arc deserving of being further explored: the realization that the friends she grew up with, and the world that she lived in, is one she no longer feels comfortable with – or even likes.

Grade: B-

Side note: Watch for Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s mother. She steals every scene she’s in and gets some great laughs.

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