Friday, August 12, 2011

The Help: The power of friendship

The Help (2011) • View trailer for The Help
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.12.11

Certain historical flashpoints become such an iconic part of our cultural awareness, that we cannot help being engaged by stories that spring from them.
Aibileen (Viola Davis, standing left) observes the uncomfortable power
dynamics while attending to the needs of neighborhood "queen bee" Hilly
(Bryce Dallas Howard, seated center), who easily exerts subtle psychological
control over Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly, left). Even Skeeter (Emma Stone, right),
although fully aware of her "friend's" behavior, understands the need to tread
cautiously; one does not annoy Hilly without expecting serious reprisal.

The Holocaust is an obvious example; its power never diminishes, and I marvel at the fresh viewpoints revealed in recent films such as The Reader, The Counterfeiters and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Another one opens this week: Sarah's Key and its star, Kristen Scott Thomas, are certain to become a topic du jour in the next few months.

Moving closer to home, race relations in the mid-20th century — particularly in the Deep South — exert an equally powerful hold. Harper Lee's rich, poetic prose has much to do with the lasting impact of To Kill a Mockingbird, but its setting and gently instructive message deserve equal credit.

Kathryn Stockett's The Help channels Lee's masterpiece in all the best ways.

Even a casual student of history cannot help being astonished — and sickened — by the deplorable behavior that was a norm, in some parts of this country, a mere 50 years ago. Within my own lifetime. The very notion staggers me.

We often watch British imports such as Upstairs, Downstairs and congratulate ourselves for being a classless society. Don't you believe it: The dividing lines may be subtler at times, but we routinely slot into roles every bit as rigorously defined as those that separated England's serving class from those who were served.

Sometimes the lines aren't even subtle.

Stockett took five years to write what eventually became The Help, beginning in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Then, having accumulated more than five dozen rejection slips, she was ready to abandon the book. She happened to give it to actor-turned-filmmaker Tate Taylor, a longtime friend she had known since their shared childhoods in Jackson, Miss., in the 1970s.

Taylor saw more than potential; he recognized a story that could change lives. In one of those quirks of fate embraced by downtrodden artists, Stockett's manuscript was turned into a script, and put into production, long before Penguin Books got involved. Stockett's novel finally was published in 2009; it remained on the New York Times best-seller list for one week short of two years, occupying the No. 1 spot for six of those weeks.

And now the creative process has come full circle. Taylor has scripted and directed a quiet, tension-charged drama that both respects Stockett's book and provides a memorable showcase for each member of its talented cast. Despite the need to compress events, Taylor's film honors the tale being told, along with its core messages: that an immoral status quo never should be tolerated, and that change can be brought about by determined individuals willing to ignore bone-deep terror while doing the right thing.

That said, the film's tag line — "Change begins with a whisper" — is a bit misleading. I'd call this saga more of a clandestine shout.

The time is 1963; the setting is Stockett's very own Jackson, where "separate but equal" has become a mantra designed to keep a firm booted heel on half the city's population. As far as the privileged white class is concerned, if Jackson were to become the country's final city that adheres to thuggish Jim Crow laws, so much the better.

Somehow, despite being raised in such an environment, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) has grown up with eyes wide open. She's also ambitious in a way wholly unlike her peers, who have married young and embraced their roles as genteel housewives. Skeeter attended college; now, bearing a freshly minted degree from Ole Miss, she has returned home with a desire to become a journalist and writer. She demonstrates her pluck while successfully badgering the local newspaper's editor (a scene-stealing Leslie Jordan) for a job.

It's not much of an assignment: reinvigorating the dormant Miss Myrna household cleaning-hints column. But it involves specialized knowledge outside her skill set, and so she seeks help from Aibileen (Olivia Davis), who works for Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O'Reilly), one of Skeeter's longtime friends.

Skeeter's efforts — indeed, her core personality and character traits — are subtly undercut, at every turn, by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the self-appointed Queen Bee of their neighborhood circle. Hilly employs social conventions like blunt weapons, and nobody dares get on her bad side. She's a disarmingly polite tyrant whose superficial smile never reaches her eyes, and Howard is positively chilling in the role.

God forbid anybody should cross Hilly, as happened with poor Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a gal from the "wrong side of the tracks" who nonetheless snagged the neighborhood's most eligible bachelor. Silently shunned and left with virtually no friends, the not terribly bright Celia leads a lonely, forlorn existence in a huge home on the outside of town, wondering why she never gets invited to Hilly's many social events.

Hilly's also the sort of self-righteous racist who insists that she's no such thing, instead having "only the best" at heart with her reflexively callous statements and actions. Bad enough that she grinds her so-called friends beneath her heel; Hilly's treatment of the serving class is breathtakingly cruel and mean-spirited.

The status can't be quo enough for such a person; Hilly's newest "reform," which she intends taking to the state's highest political offices, involves a mandate for entirely separate plumbing facilities in every house with a black servant. It simply isn't sanitary for "them" to use the same toilets.

Mind you, such statements are made — such opinions are held — about the maids who raise these women's children: who are, in every measureable way, more loving and devoted, and far better parents, than the actual parents. Hilly, Elizabeth and their ilk can't be bothered with child-rearing; it interferes with their bridge parties and condescending "charity" functions.

Americans often smugly condemn the long-standing British practice of sending children off to boarding schools, sometimes at a very young age. Well, hell; this is much, much worse. These children live with mothers who ignore them: a fact that never escapes Aibileen.

Nor Taylor, who spares no opportunity to quietly demonstrate how Elizabeth shamefully ignores her young daughter, because the poor little girl has the bad taste to be unattractive.

The other key character in this percolating drama is Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), Hilly's tart-tongued and unwisely outspoken maid. No surprise, then, that these two are destined to lock horns ... and there can be only one victor.

Or ... maybe not.

Silently horrified by all this, inwardly seething at the injustice, Skeeter concocts an audacious plan to write a book filled with frank stories from the maids' point of view. Such a scheme is bluntly prohibited by Mississippi law — that, right there, is a stunning bit of information — and Aibileen, whom Skeeter first approaches, wants nothing to do with it. Events will prompt a change of mind; additional events will bring Minny into this secret project.

But if it's to become an actual book, Skeeter's New York City editor — Mary Steenburgen, making the most of her brief scenes — warns that at least another dozen participants will be needed. And that seems insurmountable.

I vividly remember Viola Davis from 2008's Doubt, a hot-button-topic drama with a superstar cast led by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Despite this superlative competition, Davis owned her brief scenes as the mother of a boy who may have been molested by Hoffman's priest. Frankly, I recall little else about the film ... but I'll never forget Davis, who garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

She's equally strong here, her performance a study of subtlety. We get the all the rich contradictions: Aibileen knows her worth but also understands her "place." She carefully, cautiously tries to undo the worst damage wrought by Elizabeth's crap parenting, calling upon the skills that have served her while raising 17 (!) children for various employers.

But while Davis illustrates the prideful joy that comes from such a sacred task, Aibileen also carries the weight of her own personal tragedy: an event that only Skeeter has the perception to ask about. And at first Aibileen can't trust the concern from this white woman; we see it in Davis' eyes, as she wonders if somehow this is a trick.

Spencer's Minnie, in great contrast, hasn't the patience for subtlety; her feelings are as raw and exposed as her dangerously frank behavior. Taylor walks an impressively fine line with this character; although many of Minnie's statements and actions are played for laughs, she is by no means a caricature. Minnie knows that her insolence is dangerous, and she correspondingly lives in constant fear of retribution. Spencer's performance is marvelously complex and shaded, and Minnie's eventual bonding with Celia opens whole new vistas of character depth.

Stone conveys most of Skeeter's rage via veiled glances and mildly caustic remarks with just-concealed innuendo; she's not too good to be true. No matter how enlightened, this cannot be a young woman with modern, big-city feminist qualities; she has her own role to play. So while Stone can't be quite as feisty as we've seen her elsewhere, she makes Skeeter every bit as spirited: an intelligent soul biding her time until the proper avenue for expression comes along.

Chastain, so much better here than in the dismal Tree of Life, makes Celia a memorably tragic ditz. She's by turns hilariously superficial and yet capable of her own great anguish; this film's single most powerful moment occurs in Celia's garden.

Allison Janney slowly reveals hidden depths as Charlotte, Skeeter's mother, a woman silently seeking absolution for a recent moral transgression. Sissy Spacek, in contrast, is this story's spunky comic relief, as Hilly's mother: increasingly dismayed by what her daughter has grown up to become.

And the always marvelous Cicely Tyson has a standout role as Constantine, the maid who helped raise Skeeter, and now has mysteriously vanished.

Although Taylor's approach is somewhat stage-bound — we easily can imagine this narrative as a play — the action never feels confined. The dialogue is too rich; the characters are too compelling. We're fascinated by the various interpersonal dynamics, horrified by the structured setting. Ultimately, the film delivers its various morals because Taylor's script doesn't preach; it merely demonstrates, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.

That said, a few details lack sufficient depth. Taylor's handling of Stuart (Chris Lowell), a fellow who catches Skeeter's fancy, is so superficial — and the outcome so rushed — that the film would have been better off simply leaving him out. And it's difficult to feel comfortable about where the story leaves Hilly and Elizabeth's neglected little girl.

And, yes, this story is guilty of a familiar historical re-write: that the Deep South black underclass only needed a gutsy white person to jump-start the Civil Rights movement. While this fabrication isn't as offensively portrayed as in, say, 1988's Mississippi Burning, it remains a bit ... uncomfortable.

But not to a point that becomes intrusive. If stories — and films — derive their power, their resonance, from an ability to draw us into the very souls of their characters, then Taylor's adaptation of The Help succeeds, and then some. It's filled with moments we'll not soon forget.

No comments:

Post a Comment