Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel gives way to a brief odyssey through the damned and damning racist conventions of the South via Jackson, Mississippi in the early '60s. Actor-turned-director Tate Taylor wisely puts all faith and responsibility in his nearly all-women cast to embody the mannerisms and accents of an era not so far removed as some would like to think. The film's gifted ensemble dream cast of actresses work every angle of motivation, objective, and emotion with lasting dramatic touches. Emma Stone brings her A-game as "Skeeter" Phelan, an upstart author whose day job writing an advice column for the local paper sends her doing research with her neighbor's salt-of-the-earth maid Aibileen Clark (exquisitely played by Viola Davis). Skeeter is partial to the plight of the local maids because she was raised by her family's caring servant Constantine Jefferson (Cicely Tyson). Constantine's mysterious disappearance from the Phelan household provides one of several suspended hooks that link the complex narrative together.
Informed by uncomfortable meetings with the local white-ladies-who-lunch, as overseen by toilet-obsessed racist Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Skeeter is inspired to write a book based on her interviews with the local help. Under threat of legal punishment or Jim Crow justice, only Aibileen is willing to participate in Skeeter's clandestine interviews. In time, Aibileen's more outspoken best friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) agrees to tell everything she knows and thinks about the humiliating working conditions she has worked under and witnessed.
You sense a good-humored gamesmanship between the actresses as they bring out the best in each other's performances. Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis are a pleasure to watch. You almost feel like you're watching live theater with the way sparks fly between the two soulfully animated women. The same level of unvarnished energy goes for Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, and Allison Janney, all of whom make their supporting roles count. For her villainous role Bryce Dallas Howard makes you hate her with a passion. "The Help" takes its audience on an emotional rollercoaster through lives lived in a culture that is aptly named Hell on Earth during one scene. Still, it never slips into exploitation or humor for humor's sake. Every word, thought, and deed follows a path paved with blood, sweat, and tears. This is an appropriately moving film that never bows to sentimentality. What you feel is real. By all means, see this wonderful movie.
Rated PG-13. 137 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
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