Where to start with the recently released film adaptation of The Help…it’s hard to settle on a starting point because my thoughts on a movie are rarely this all over the place. So, perhaps that’s where we start–this movie has huge issues in establishing and maintaining a tone. I never quite knew what I was watching–a Remember the Titans Disney-ized take on race relations, or a grittier character piece reflecting on the cycles of abuse in a closed society (in the case Jackson, Mississippi). It landed somewhere in between–which is understandable for a studio picture to take. It’s based on a bestseller book with a wide appeal, they didn’t want to be a total downer. However, an appropriate balance could have been taken–and instead it seemed like part of the cast was in one movie, part of it in another–and various scenes don’t seem to be even written by the same writer. Despite these major tonal issues though, it is overall an appealing, likable film. It could have been great, it isn’t–but let’s not focus on that yet.
So, what works…standing out as the ultimate savior of the picture is an absolutely fearless performance by co-lead Viola Davis which elevates every frame she is in and takes the film to a level it perhaps does not deserve. In fact, without Davis in the role of Aibileen, it’s likely the entire thing would have felt more like the Disneyed version–but her presence is an incredible tentpole that takes her scene partners up with her. After her mainstream breakout performance in Doubt and her Tony-winning turn in Fences, Ms. Davis has established herself as being in that category of America’s greatest working film actresses–Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, et al–their is a new member in your club. And Viola does what these ladies have been doing best–giving revelatory performances in both great and sub-par material. Despite the film itself not being close to awards bait–I would sure hope that this performance will be a serious Best Actress contender (I’m looking at you, category frauders, who would put her in Supporting). She’s just too good to be ignored.
In the also great category–Octavia Spencer gives a nuanced performance in what could have just as easily have been a stereotype cartoon, Jessica Chastain is delightful as the society outcast Celia, and Allison Janney & Cicely Tyson give wonderful shining supporting performances in what should have been thankless roles. Sissy Spacek, still with excellent comic timing, adds a wonderful presence to round out the large female ensemble.
The strongest standout in the ‘bad schmacting’ category is Bryce Dallas Howard as the white lady ring leader Hilly Holbrook. Ms. Howard turns in a villainess caricature devoid of humanity or motivation. She nearly ruins every scene she’s in, honestly, as her lack of depth brings out all the weakness in the screenplay. In fact, she is the exact opposite of Ms. Davis’ tentpole–where Viola lifts her co-stars, Bryce Dallas Howard sinks them. It’s really a shame.
Mixed between the two is Emma Stone in the co-central role of Skeeter Phelan. Disappointing, as I have become a big fan of Stone after Superbad, Easy A, and Crazy Stupid Love. However, Stone shows that her effortless comedic timing and breezy onscreen personality lacks the range of a dramatic actress. Stone is charismatic and fun in The Help and aids the story in pacing its two and half hour runtime, but doesn’t let us in on anything that Skeeter might be thinking or feeling. For this story to have really worked, I would have needed to be let in on the contradictions, fears, and motivations of both Aibileen and Skeeter–and you only get one side of that. Stone comes off as a selfless martyr for what’s right, the white knight as it were to save Jackson’s maids. But she doesn’t have to–and that’s what keeps it as the level of a slightly-better-than-mediocre Hollywood take on Jackson in the 60′s. A better actress would have found that balance. Stone just isn’t up to the challenge, and it doesn’t seem like director/writer Tate Taylor was skilled enough to help it along without that central performance.
If the glass of The Help were half-empty, I would say it’s a huge shame that performances like those of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney & Cecily Tyson are stuck in a just okay movie. But I am going to think of it as half full, and celebrate that we got to see these wonderful actresses in these roles, instead of a cast full of Bryce Dallas Howards.