THE HELP (2011)

 

Director: Tate Taylor

Writer: Tate Taylor

Cast: Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer, Sissy Spacek and Allison Janney

Studio: Dreamworks/Touchstone

The problem with cinematic undertakings of “The South” is that it’s usually crafted by people from outside the region. While you don’t have to be bound to a culture to respect it, the American Southeast has taken a pounding in popular culture since “The Birth of a Nation”. The only other region that comes close to taking the same sort of grief is Detroit. But, what is it about The South that makes it such a punching bag? Hell, let’s take a look at the real bastard point of the region. Why does Hollywood enjoy slamming The Deep South?

“The Help” opens on what can’t help to be a slight riff on “Almost Famous”, but it then slides into the usual trappings of White Guilt cinema. A ditzy white mother can’t provide proper care for her child, but there’s a doting mammy in the wings. She takes special care of her young ward, while noting that the rather chubby child will never gain the appreciation of the white world. Yet, there’s a sort of pain in her eyes when she comes to understand that this young lady will grow up to be the hate-filled house matron that will dominate her golden years. Writer/Director Tate Taylor and Producer Chris Columbus don’t seem to be strangers to emotional manipulation and they go out of their way to paint you into easy corners.

It’s Bryce Dallas Howard that helps to keep this typical mainstream views on race relations in a bygone era from turning into a melodrama. What could’ve easily been a standard Ice Queen is allowed to breathe with a hate that walks the line between realistic and cartoonish. Certain viewers won’t see the nuance behind the acting and will only see the film for what it is. Another lengthy Award material piece that’s designed to make older people feel bad about racism. Watching some younger viewers in my screening, I came to see a new generation of eyes that viewed the film as something of a throwback. A work of fiction that has much to do with their present day lives as “Gone with the Wind” has to do with your life.

Emma Stone is slowly coming into her own as an actress, but she’s not quite at Award worthy status yet. Her turn as Skeeter Phelan is a revelation, but what should’ve been her vehicle is steered away far too many times by an assortment of actresses that keep pushing her off the screen. The same can’t be said for Jessica Chastain as the white trash turned Debutante Pariah Celia Foote. Having stolen away the local hunk through no fault of her own, Celia finds herself on the outs with the women she wants to befriend. Feeling a certain kinship with the downcast help, Celia is the first to offer a sincere hand in friendship to these women.

Octavia Spencer is the true star of the film, as she slips in and out of material that would make Spike Lee go verklempt. But, Spencer finds a special kind of beauty in playing genre staples. The same could be said for Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote. But, let’s stick to the scene-stealing eyeball popping Miss Spencer. Having spent a career as a background player in a variety of films and television shows, we now witness the slow rise of what seems to be the obvious frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress. I hate to Oscar handicapping so early, but it just feels too good not to call it a lock.

If anything “The Help” will find its place where films of this caliber can do their best work. That being snuck into the mainstream summer movie crowd, as they slowly crash upon a summer stuffed with over-fed popcorn movies. While I don’t see this film setting the box office on fire, I do see it finding a comfortable niche similar to what “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Limitless” enjoyed earlier this year. Try to catch it in the theaters and be the first to sell your friends on it. If word of mouth helps this tale to catch fire, then so be it. You’ll just want to stay away from pies for a few days.

RELEASE DATE: 8/10/2011

 

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