Sunday, 19 February 2012

I Need Somebody: "The Help"

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

As a film viewer I always try to view a film as what it is rather than what it's not. This becomes a little difficult with a film like The Help where, regardless of how good the acting and how earnest it's intentions are, it's hard not to be aware of some of the problems in its depiction of the era in which it takes place. In this review, I'll try to balance a reading of the film just as it is but also address the film's more controversial aspects.

The Help is based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett and is essentially about a young woman named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) in 1960s Mississippi who returns home after graduating journalism school. She wants to write about what concerns her and decides to focus on black maids who are mistreated by their employers. She writes down the stories of numerous maids, anoymously publishing a book called The Help. Now, with just this short synopsis, the main problem people have with The Help becomes apparent, which is it sounds like another film where a black person's story is told through the perspective of a white character who becomes a saviour figure. I think the emphasis on the white characters is an enevitable problem in a story like this where the focus is on the relationship between these women, both black and white. But while The Help does have this "white emphasis" problem, it doesn't completely define the film.

The reason it doesn't completely define the film is because despite Skeeter being the writer of the book, the only character who narrates the film is Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), one of the maids Skeeter interviews. She's the first face we see in the film and the character who finally closes the film with both her actions and her narration. Essentially, Aibileen is spiritually the main character. In fact, I find the Skeeter character  more of a device for the Aibileen character's journey than the other way around. The most interesting thing about The Help, I would say, is while it seemingly tells its story through a white perspective, the real journey at the film heart is Aibileen's

The one sub plot which I really felt had to go was the one between Skeeter and her love interest Stewart (Chris Lowell). While I can understand this subplot is used to give the character of Skeeter some texture, it feels beside the point of the film. It also lends itself to the "white emphasis criticism." I did like the story between Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), another maid Skeeter interviews and Aibileen's friend, and Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). Celia is an outsider from the circle of society women because she was born working class. She also married the ex boyfriend of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Both Minny and Celia are outsiders in their own ways. Minny is fired by Hilly after she uses Hilly's bathroom. Being outsiders is what draws Minny and Celia together thematically and personally. Some have said the Minny character is a caricature more than character but I thought Spencer brought a lot of wisdom and authentic humour to the part. Chastain, who appeared in quite a few films last year, is a wonderfully versatile actress. Like Spencer, she takes a character who could be a caricature and makes her in to someone lovable, sweet and very human.

The outsider relationship between Minny and Celia is a parralel of the relationship between Aibileen and Skeeter. While Aibileen isn't fired like Minny, she's still an outsider among outsiders, black maids working in a white world. Skeeter is more of a mental outsider. While she's part of the circle of society ladies, she represents a modern woman who wants to bring about change. Ironically, it's her inclusion within society which allows her to subltly go about deconstructing it.

Returning to the notion of Skeeter being a device for Aibileen, I didn't mean this as a negative in regards to Skeeter's character, just that I think Aibileen's journey is more important than Skeeter's. I also  think Aibileen and Skeeter both need each other. Skeeter needs to connect with Aibileen in order to understand what it means to be a black woman at this time. At the beginning of the film, we see Aibileen's face and Skeeter's voice asking what it feels like to raise white children while your own child is at home. This question seems to be the most important question in the film and what Skeeter needs to understand yet paradoxically can never understand. Aibileen needs Skeeter to give her a push to tell her story and an outlet in which to do so. The closing narration implies Aibileen is the real author of the book or at least will become a real author after her relationship with Skeeter.

Viola Davis gives a really lived in performance. From her first moments on screen, you feel this is an authentic human being and a woman who has been a maid for much of her life. Emma Stone is beautiful and sexy as always. She's possesses the charm and energy and make us fall in love with Skeeter. But in contrast to Aibileen, Skeeter and Stone are not old enough for the character to feel as lived in as Aibileen. That's not a knock against Stone nor is something negative. The contrast between the two, one who has truly lived a life and one whose life is only just beginning, make a interesting partnership.

Bryce Dallas Howard has the sweet faced innocence which contrasts well with her character Hilly's ugly personality. I wish the character had been more complex instead of merely being the villain.

Minny tells Skeeter and Aibileen how she got back at Hilly for firing her. Minny baked a pie made out of her own shit. It's a funny scene but it represents the problem this film has with tone. On the one hand, the film does have some nice comedic moments, including a scene where Aibileen and Minny make fun of the society women, but it's also trying to be an honest drama about the time period. The pie scene feels out of place in a film which is dealing with racism, an assissination and the fear of death.

The film also suffers from being all over the place with its focus. This does give the film a lived in quality and allows us to feel like we're part of this world but I felt sometimes the progression of scenes and events don't feel organic. This stalls the momentum. I would have liked for the emphasis to be more on the writing of the book and the aftermath of it being published. By the time the book is published, there's a confrontation between Skeeter and Hilly and then between Aibileen and Hilly, then the film ends.

Still, I enjoyed this film due to its humour, characters and performances. I think the director Tate Taylor, who is Stockett's childhood friend, gives his actors breathing room within the frame and a scene. He's not intrusive and I feel hs direction is more subtle than his script.

And when Aibileen walks away at the end of the film down a symbolic open road, I think you truly want to know what happened to her. That's a testament to the story, which does make Aibileen the most soulful and interesting character, and of course, to Davis' performance

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