The Help
dir-scr Tate Taylor
prd Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Brunson Green
with Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Aunjanue Ellis, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Ahna O'Reilly, Anna Camp, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen
release US 10.Aug.11, UK 28.Oct.11
11/US DreamWorks 2h26
The Help
Shaking up the system: Davis and Spencer

stone howard chastain
empire big screen
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
The Help A strongly issue-based story gives a terrific cast plenty to play with in this hugely engaging drama about the American South in the 1960s. And while the film kind of skims the surface, it's a story that still needs to be told.

After graduating from university, Skeeter (Stone) returns home to Jackson, Mississippi, to seek work as a journalist. But one theme from her childhood haunts her: the maid (Tyson) who actually raised her. But her similarly raised close friends (Howard, O'Reilly and Camp) now take their own maids for granted, and Skeeter wonders why this story has never been told from the help's point of view. After finding an interested New York editor (Steenburgen), it takes awhile to convince Aibileen (Davis) to tell her story, especially as both know it will upset the status quo.

Narrated by Aibileen, the film is populated by a range of lively women who give us a glimpse at the various aspects of Southern life just before the turbulence of the civil rights movement. Behind their warm, smiley hospitality, these ladies are a bundle of bigotry that extends beyond racism: they not only lack respect for their employees, but they harshly shun any outsider who dares question their power. In the film, this is represented by Celia (Chastain), a seemingly loose woman who emerges as the most complex character.

We also meet maids with other stories, including the hilariously sharp-tongued Minny (Spencer) and the vulnerable Yule Mae (Ellis), plus a few telling women from an older generation (Janney and Spacek). Each of these roles features at least one show-stopping moment, and all of the actresses are simply fantastic. By contrast, the male characters are thin sketches, even though they're played by fine actors like Mike Vogel, Chris Lowell, Nelsan Ellis, David Oyelowo and Brian Kerwin.

As the intense central plot builds, the filmmakers release tension with a generous dose of earthy humour. Spencer is especially funny, with her sassy attitude and expressive physicality. She also gets the story's biggest punchline. Yet while she's merrily stealing the laughs, the other female characters are equally memorable. And in the warm, emotional final act, the story carries a powerfully resonant final punch.

cert 12 themes, language 14.Aug.11 ebs

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© 2011 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall