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Non-Review Review: The Help

The Help is a well made film with a solid script, decent direction, and some very good performances from a superb ensemble. It’s hard not to get swept up in the drama as it unfolds, as the movie takes a harsh look at some of the prejudice festering in Mississippi during the sixties, where the phrase “hippie!”was an accusation that could destroy anyone’s social standing, it was not appropriate to fraternise with the help, and even raising the suggestion of racial equality was to open one’s self to prosecution for breaking the law. It’s powerful stuff. I was moved by it, particularly by the wonderful work put in by the cast. And, yet, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something very cynical unfolding before my eyes. The Help is a movie that seems built to fill a particular void, carefully measured and constructed to keep its audience well within their comfort zones, and a movie that feels like it might be sacrificing some of its depth for fear of actually challenging its audience.

Fraternising with the help...

In fairness, the movie has a great hook. It explores the lives of the African-American maids who effectively raised an entire generation of young Americans. These people are seldom mentioned or discussed, and there’s some powerful tragedy there. As our central maid, Aibileen, tells us, it’s emotionally wretching to spend your days looking after somebody else’s child, while yours is at home being raised by a friend or a neighbour. The film illustrates that point particularly well. However, it broaches another topic that it suggests, but never really develops. What must it be like to raise one of these children, only to have them turn out just as prejudiced (or even moreso) than their parents?

The movie suggests this possibility through the character of Hilly Holbrook, raised by Minny Jackson. Hilly has grown up even more prejudiced than her mother, motivated by maliciousness and insecurity disguised as righteousness. She hosts gala balls for the starving children of Africa, while denying her own hired help the right to use the bathroom. Curiously, we never get the sense of any sort of bond between Hilly and Minny. We never get any sense that Minny thought she was a good child, or a bad child. While we get development of the relationships that Aibileen has with the child she minds, or Skeeter with her own maid, we never get a sense that Hilly and Minny shared that experience the whole film is built around.

A different walk of life...

It feels like a bit of a copout, as we only seem to see positive relationships blossoming from the relationship between maid and child, rather than exploring why that might not be the case. Perhaps it would be too downbeat to suggest that some children are born bad and will grow up bad, or perhaps it might have added too much depth to Hilly’s character to suggest she had been born good and had developed into this shrill and horrible individual. It’s an example of the sort of nuance the film seems to be missing, as it paints many different pictures in the broadest strokes.

Hilly never seems like a character. She seems like a plot device. We know she’s an insanely shallow and prejudiced individual from the moment we meet her, and we know that she’s going to serve as the movie’s antagonist. Her front as a charity fundraising for starving orphans is a wonderful piece of irony, but she’s pretty much portrayed as a pantomime villain throughout the piece, a collection of moments designed to make us hiss at the screen. Bryce Dallas Howard does an excellent job with the material, but it just feels a bit shallow. Hilly might as well have a giant mustache to twirl, and a last-minute attempt to give her some emotional depth seems like a cynical attempt to get past that obvious flaw.

She ain't no Sisy...

I don’t know. I guess I’ve generally felt that movies tackling big issues like this do best to avoid the obvious extremities. Undoubtedly people like Hilly actually exist, and they are horrible, but the problem is far more nuanced than that. The problem is systemic and institutional. It’s not necessarily about people actively trying to make things worse, but people trying to keep things the same, no matter how inequitable the situation might be. There are elements of that sort of institutional entrenchment to be found, but their hidden behind Hilly’s attempts to make life even worse for the African-American house staff. It almost feels like it belittles the day-to-day reality when the movie pushes to those sorts of extremes.

For instance, the movie tends to define Hilly as a horrible selfish individual with very few redeeming features. This is fair, given how she acts, but it also paints the cast as victims of her. Her mother, played by Sissy Spacek, is shipped off to an institution, something that’s designed to make us hate Hilly and feel bad for her mother. Indeed, Hilly’s mother spends most of the movie being witty, charming and open-minded.

Fitting in...

In the way the film unambiguously categorises characters, she’s “good” – she sticks it to her daughter, stands up for Minny and is generally good-natured. This seems to let her off the hook for her own involvement in the film’s inequalities. When Minny complains about not making minimum wage, I doubt that Hilly cut her pay on taking over the household – Hilly’s mother clearly profited as much by this system of inequality as anybody else, but the film makes her look innocent by contrasting her with Hilly.

Of course, the movie never gets too serious. Horrible things happen to people, but there’s always a laugh or two coming in a minute to prevent us from dwelling on how incredibly crap everything happens to be. Director Tate Taylor balances the mood quite well, and the dissonance is only apparent once or twice. It’s tough to balance that sort of “bittersweet”sentiment, and the movie tends to blunt the bitterness while wallowing in the sweet, which creates a very strange atmosphere.

Dinner table conversation...

In particular, Taylor evokes the time remarkably well. We’re informed of casual acts of violence – black men killed through malice and indifference. We hear snippets from actual speeches documenting the political strife. The death of JFK comes up, as seems obligatory in any major American movie set during 1963. There is a sense of dread in the ear, and Taylor and his cast convey it remarkably well. At one point, African Americans run home at night after reports of a shooting, silently terrified about what might happen on the way home or what might be waiting for them. However, all of this seems relegated to the background – to scenes interspaced with a flirtatious romance, or light-hearted bonding, or old women being sassy. The types of scenes we seem mandated to have in movies like this.

I’m not sure what to make of the decision to set the novel in the sixties. It was written by Kathryn Socket, drawing on her own experience of growing up raised by an African-American maid. However, Socket was born at the end of the decade, well past the setting of the movie. Setting the film against the backdrop of the civil rights movement seems to give the impression that things will change, and improve, but the fact that these events are drawn from Socket’s own experiences suggests that such prejudice and inequality wasn’t dispelled by the civil rights movement. It almost feels like a cynical and calculated move to frame the story in such a time period, and a way of avoiding the relevance it still has today, as if we can dismiss the treatment that these women receive by saying, “Ah, but it’s different now!”

Need some Help?

The best scenes in the film come from when we see Skeeter hitting against this wall of institutionalised prejudice, rather than the pantomime of outhouses and transparent phonies. The two best sequences see Skeeter’s mother going along with a prejudice she clearly sees as wrong for the sake of keeping up appearances, and Skeeter’s relationship suffering for her decision to do the right thing. These work because they are scenes that call out people who seem decent on playing into these reinforced social inequities, rather than providing us with cardboard cutout villains.

It probably sounds like I hated this film. I didn’t. I actually quite liked it, but it just felt a lot less substantial than it really deserved to be. And it seemed consciously so, as if afraid of alienating or offending anyone. There are moments that genuinely touched me, and that had my feeling happy and sad, but always in measured tones – and always in such a manner that I knew I was meantto feel that way. While Taylor skilfully evokes period, it’s the actors who sell the movie. Voila Davis is getting a lot of attention for her role here, and it’s deserved. The movie works a lot better with her than it would without her, as she manages to perfectly sell everything the script gives to her.

A rolling Stone...

However, special mention must go to the supporting cast. In particular, Octavia Spencer as Minny and Jessica Chastain as Celia. The pair go through the standard “two people from different social backgrounds overcome hurdles and become true friends” plot, but they both handle it extremely well. Chastain seems to be everywhere at the moment, and there’s good reason. I’ve yet to see a performance from her that isn’t impressive. I suspect that her upcoming role as Lady Di might serve as her breakthrough. Even the smaller roles are well cast, with David Oyelowo and Allison Janney both well-used in smaller parts. And I hope the movie affords Emma Stone the opportunity to break into the big-time, as she’s proving herself quite the young talent.

I liked The Help, even if I couldn’t bring myself to love it. It’s well made, but it just feels like it was a little too carefully constructed.

2 Responses

  1. Appalling, entertaining, touching and perhaps even a bit healing, The Help is an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days. Good review, as always.

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