I get the feeling that The Help wasn't catering to me. I watched the movie and was never bored or unhappy with the film. But as the (almost entirely) elderly female audience guffawed with the jokes and sniveled at the teary scenes, I found myself strangely unmoved. This film has all of the pieces in all of the right places. There's some romance, some running gags, some emotional tragedy, some abuse, some inspiring moments. But it all seemed programmed. Staged.
"The Help" refers to the colored women hired to work as housekeepers in the white homes of 1960's Jackson, Mississippi. Emma Stone stars as Eugenia (mercifully nicknamed Skeeter), a young writer with dreams of becoming a full-time journalist. Having recently returned from schooling, she is shocked with how the colored help are being treated. She decides to write an exposé on the subject, from their point of view.
Her scandalous project begins with the testimony of one woman, Aibileen (Viola Davis). It's not just frowned upon for her to speak up. It's illegal. I find it interesting that the film (and/or book) is narrated by Aibileen, yet focused on Skeeter. Wouldn't it be more fascinating to have the colored help be the central characters? Sure it's hard to convince your mom you want to be a writer instead of a housewife, and maybe it would cause you to lose friends to associate with the help. But how much more of a struggle are these colored women facing? That's a more compelling movie, if you ask me.
With her freckled face and tightly-curled hair, Emma Stone looks almost shockingly like a younger Lindsay Lohan. Her role is central in the film, but I don't feel like her character is fully shaped. She's completely sympathetic around the colored women, but completely resistant around any white people. The lack of any crossover hurt Stone's chances of finding a breakout role.
The film, like most book adaptations, has many things going on at once. In a novel, narrative focus can deviate without becoming too wayward. But films need more of a drive. A central focus. The Help has several plots roaming around, each involving a certain character or relationship. We have the testimonies that build the book Skeeter is writing, but they're mixed in with issues of poor parenting, abuse at home, and a silly dalliance of a love story. Instead of making the film feel full and rich, it ends up feeling very episodic, with different conflicts brought up momentarily, resolved, and then just shelved for the rest of the movie.
Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastin, Octavia Spencer, and Allison Janney are just some of the additional names in this cast. And what power they bring to this film. Whether it's in acute comic timing or in heartfelt emotional pull, each of these ladies give believable, strong performances. The film also uses its large assemblage of characters to keep the picture from dragging. The runtime is bloated, but the pacing is quick and spirited.
There is much good to be said about this film and many quibbles to be had, but there is one problem that just outshines everything else. Only one character changes throughout the course of the film: Skeeter's mother. Every other character runs on autopilot from start to finish. If they started out as a racist antagonist, they'll stay that until the bitter end. The same goes for the protagonists. From the start we know who to root for and who to root against.
Something like that shouldn't make a huge difference in a film about types. But the whole purpose of Skeeter's novel was to inspire change. While everyone reads the book by the film's end, it doesn't seem to make an impact on anyone. (It's fair to note that this is disappointingly a completely fictional story) It's moving to see a good person be rewarded for their courage. But how much more moving is it to see a bad person take a stand and change for the better?
The Help seems to have a backwards focus. It has a message in mind, but it doesn't know how to arrange its parts to make the point with the power intended. Most moments of sympathy and heartbreak seemed staged instead of authentic. If the emotional pull of this film was dedicated to the characters instead of to the film's moral structure, it might have been moving. This is a congenial little movie with good intentions. It's not bad by any means, but it's rather flat.
Many have compared this to The Blind Side, and reasonably so. They both are uplifting and pleasant. They both join the "White Savior" film club, where colored people are given a chance only when a white person gives them the tools to do so. And, just like the predecessor, audiences are churning out in masses to see this. The Blind Side took a predictable story and made it genuine by showing how change occurs on both sides of the spectrum. The Help, however, is too busy trying to take all the right steps to really make any movements, on either side of the story.