The Help (2011)

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Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The Help isn’t what you would call a BAD film – the script and direction from Tate Taylor is dependable and completely predictable while the performances from all of the cast members really elevate every scene – but in many ways I couldn’t help rolling my eyes and thinking of it as something that wasn’t very good. In fact, considering how I was feeling about halfway through the movie I find my rating of it as something that scrapes just above average to be very, very generous and almost completely down to the acting from Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain.

Emma Stone plays a girl who decides to write about just what it’s like to be a member of The Help in America in the 1960s. She does this, initially, with the help of two strong women (played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer). But that’s just the beginning, much to the outrage of those who have grown up with such blatant racism ingrained into every aspect of their lives.

The film is a TV movie given a selection of star names and the ability to prick the collective conscience of middle-class white America. Of course, it’s not just America that gets to view the movie and feel self-assured about just how much we’ve all moved on from those days in which every respectable household had black serving staff and racial segregation was an everyday occurence. People who can quickly tell you that they could never be labelled a racist because they have “black friends” will also get a lot of enjoyment from seeing how like-minded individuals in years gone by helped to bring about racial equality by . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . being white and encouraging black people to put forward the story that had to be told.

It’s all patronising nonsense, of course, although I can’t deny that many individual aspects of The Help helped me to stay awake during the many scenes often swamped by cliches. The biggest bonus that the film has is Bryce Dallas Howard, who has shown a knack for being able to play women you just love to hate (her character here may be more overtly nasty than her character in 50/50 but she is very similiar in the way that she is oblivious to her own major flaws and thinks that she remains a person of good morals). Howard seems to improve with each movie and steals the show here. Of course, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are both very good but they have the easier characterisations to work with. Spencer gets more to do when sharing screentime with the other big bonus that the film has – Jessica Chastain, who gets to play a character so sweet and unassuming that she really puts forward the best message inherent in the movie simply because she has no agenda (be it for or against segregation and prejudice). I’d go as far as to say that if the whole movie had been made to instead revolve around Chastain and Spencer then The Help would have been a much better experience. Well, admittedly,  Sissy Spacek would have remained in the mix, stealing almost as many scenes as Howard does.

A film with some great performances is unbalanced by far too many good intentons. Because we all know what direction the road goes that is paved with good intentions.

WRITER/DIRECTOR: TATE TAYLOR (BASED ON THE NOVEL BY KATHRYN STOCKETT)
CAST: EMMA STONE, VIOLA DAVIS, BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD, OCTAVIA SPENCER, JESSICA CHASTAIN, AHNA O’REILLY, ALLISON JANNEY, MIKE VOGEL, SISSY SPACEK, CHRIS LOWELL, MARY STEENBURGEN
RUNTIME: 146 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA/INDIA/UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

2 Comments
  1. Chris Knipp says

    I wouldn’t disagree with you, just on nuances. By beginning by saying first thing that this “isn’t a BAD film” you pretty much say it is, seconding that when you say it’s a “TV film” dressed up with a good cast, which could mean anything (since TV material is often better than films nowadays). Your rating is about right, but despite this being well-meaning tripe, every scene is good, and that counts for something. But you have done a good job of honoring the cast. I am not a champion of this film! I would have been disappointed if it had won the Best Picture Oscar, though not surprised. In the end, that Oscar was more of a surprise, given the usual Hollywood tastes.

  2. Kevin Matthews says

    It’s certainly not a BAD film compared to the many I have watched such as Lake Placid 2 & 3 but it’s a bad film compared to many other mainstream outings, I feel. As for my “TV film” comment – you’re right, I may be coming down a bit harsh on modern TV fare as I was thinking back to the sappy, well-meaning Hallmark TV movies that used to be churned out weekly. 🙂

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