The Help is about two black women, Aibileen and Minny, and the time they helped a white woman, Skeeter, write a book about black maids in Jackson, Mississippi. The time frame is somewhere around MLK and JFK with an emphasis on “separate but equal”. Mississippi law bans social interaction between whites and blacks, one way or another, so Skeeter’s interviews aren’t exactly toeing the line. Meanwhile, alpha bitch Hilly adds tension by blacklisting maids she doesn’t like yet staying friends with Skeeter (“friends” as in “With friends like these…”). The Help is easy to like but that is exactly why it is not a great movie.
Before I explain, let us review other parts of the movie.
Skeeter is played by Emma Stone. In The Help, Stone looks like a freckly little boy. That is not a bad thing for the role. Skeeter is the oddball of the Jackson white ladies. As a career person, she’s not worried about marriage, though she does get a lot of pressure between her mom’s different values and Hilly playing matchmaker. The actress didn’t have to be gorgeous, but as one of the main characters, Stone’s Skeeter was utterly tame. The lady who played her nanny had more charisma. Having lots of lines and screentime doesn’t make up for being thin on personality, and using awkward mannerisms (exempli gratia weird laugh) doesn’t help. Fortunately for The Help, the movie isn’t all about Skeeter, anyway.
The design scheme of the costumes is obvious, which I liked. Most of the JWLs have smooth, bouffant-ish hairstyles and wear light, feminine colors. Skeeter has messy curls and dons earthier tints. If Stone’s acting doesn’t cut it, she stands out enough because of these two differences in character design. I think most people won’t actively notice, but it is a concrete way to get the audience to make those associations.
Rule of Chick Flick (well, Chick Lit, I guess) says that all white female leads must have a white male love interest unless the plot calls for otherwise, and The Help complies with this in a bad way. Hilly knows this guy named Stuart who works on an oil rig, and she forces Skeeter to date him. Of course, Skeeter hates him almost before he opens his mouth, both of them commence exchange of adolescent insults, and he returns for a privater second date in which he apologizes, says some cheesy things, and kisses her. The execution of these scenes leave me incredulous. Both of the actors go so awkwardly fast that I wonder why the director didn’t cut the romance out entirely. It’s not like it affected the plot or resulted in any character development at all.
The real, strong point of the movies is Minny. Aibileen isn’t half bad but Minny was my favorite. Octavia Spencer, who plays Minny, shows both the loveably gimmicky sass and the vulnerability of a woman who fears her husband’s temper. The only problem is that there isn’t more of her story. Spencer wears Minny’s emotional state like a badge complete with flashing red strobe light. She seems nonchalant when she socializes with the maids boarding the bus to go to work but tension and determination hangs in the air when the bus leaves without her. Meeting her new employer, a ditzy but friendly blond lady named Celia, Minny’s mood shifts from anxious to stumped to comfortable right on the beat. She trains Celia in all the skills Celia’s supposed to have so the other JWLs don’t show her up, and takes a gruff pride in Celia’s developing skills such as cooking and dressmaking. Hilly hosts a party and Celia shows up with a simple but eye-catching hot pink dress. As the other maids joke about JWLs needing to hold tightly onto wavering husbands, Minny snickers, “That’s the best Miss Hilly could come up with?”* If I were to remake The Help, I’d ask the author for permission to shift focus closer to Minny because her character attracts more attention.
One glaring and unlikable fault of The Help is the hanging resolution. Boom, the book is a hit. Boom, Skeeter and Stuart break up. Boom, Skeeter goes to New York. Boom, Aibileen gets fired. First, Skeeter is leaving not so much because she’s clutching onto her dream of being a writer as because she “burned most of her bridges”*. Aside from Stuart’s transformation from dandy to cowboy, his dumping of Skeeter has no significance besides being just another reason Skeeter doesn’t have to stay. The Help talks a lot during the movie to unconvincingly tell the audience that Skeeter’s headed to Harper but I feel she owes the maids more than the royalties for the book. This is a chick flick and that’s as heartwarming as it gets? She doesn’t even hang around long enough to see Hilly bully Aibileen into getting fired, which leads me to my next point.
The Help has a big, fat feel-good vibe, what with all the pretty colors and neat appearances, but it makes poor sense when I think about it logically. Aibileen’s charge looks on crying as her mother fires Aibileen, whose script is purposely reminiscent of a mother giving parting advice to her precious child. I was tempted to think, “Isn’t it sweet how open and affectionate the maids are with the white babies? They care enough to get upset when they observe that white lady being a poor mother. It’s all the more tragic when the white kids grow up to act like their parents.” In real life, the maids probably feel coldly pitiful towards their charges when they’re still innocent. They have to neglect their own kids to take care of these. They have to play a frustratingly ironic part in the education of the white baby as a nursemaid—if the kid thinks of her as “my real mama” now, the kid will still think of her as “the maid who has to do everything mama doesn’t have to” later. The maid-child relationships in The Help are so sweet that they disturb me. That’s not the only thing that doesn’t make sense. Supposedly, there’s a lot of turmoil in Jackson in relation to the Civil Rights movement and the book’s publication. I don’t see any of it. Viola Davis (Aibileen) does a fantastic job of showing the fear that black people had of what white people could do to them and Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly) is just as good at making sinister threats (at one point, I wondered if she were connected to the KKK), but most of it is implied. There are only a couple hints about domestic violence in Minny’s house and Skeeter’s like Mary Sue to the black people. For a film with dark themes, there’s an awfully apparent lack of darkness. Think about it. Skeeter might be nice to black people, but she doesn’t understand them and she’s very nosy. The film makes sense if the black people in The Help are being friendly on the outside and condescendingly tolerant on the inside due to Skeeter’s naïvete. However, the film’s pushing her as some kind of hero when she’s supposed to be nothing more than an ambitious young woman who wants to write a successful book and happens to be a little more color-blind than her friends. The story and the actual script are in disagreement, which I didn’t notice until after the movie.
Overall, The Help is not a bad movie. I can’t like it because it’s too rosy. I can’t dislike it because even the awkward scenes had entertainment value. One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t buy it.
*Not quoting word for word, I wasn’t taking notes.