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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011 06:18 am

The Help gets help from good acting

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Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis star in The Help.

If nothing else, Tate Taylor’s film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller The Help is full of good intentions. The director is intent on displaying the injustice of racism in the Deep South during the 1960s as graphically as a PG-13 rating will allow. Yet his approach is undercut by his script, which far too often uses broad strokes when a deft hand is needed.

Set in Mississippi during 1963, the film follows Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) who, having just graduated from college, returns home. Eager to become a writer, she sets out to pull together a book of interviews that will document the experience of the black maids who were hired by white families to run their households and raise their children. Skeeter has a hard time finding any willing participants until Aibileen (Viola Davis) reaches a tipping point and begins to talk. Still smarting from the death of her son, she spews forth a lifetime of pent up anger and aggression that jumpstarts the project. She is the sole subject until her best friend Minnie (Octavia Spencer) reluctantly agrees to help, a circumstance that profoundly affects the book that Skeeter eventually composes.

There are numerous problems with the script and direction from Taylor. The piece’s villain, the alabaster bigot Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), is drawn in such broad strokes she makes Cruella de Vil look like a shrinking violet, while Skeeter, as written, is little more than a cipher. Stone does her best to build a well-rounded character, but she’s given little to work with. What should be the driving force of the film comes off as a person whose motivations are unclear and intentions murky.

Thankfully, Davis and Spencer save the film with their grounded performances. Both actresses eschew the stereotypes lesser performers would have clung to and instead give us fully realized human beings whose lives have been burdened by a seemingly unending stream of suffering and abuse. Aibileen is barely there during the film’s first half hour, however, there’s a deep sadness in Davis’s eyes that communicate all her character cannot say. Once she begins to unload her burden, the character comes to life and the actress underscores each moment with the proper degree of humanity. Spencer also underplays things as much as she can. Her fiery spirit comes through with a glance or well-stressed word, as the actress taps into Minny’s inner strength. In the end, The Help has no shortage of faults, but the work of these two women makes it worth seeing.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.