Isn’t Autumn a wonderful time of year for the movie enthusiast? This is when the reign of the summer blockbuster ends and studios begin releasing their, well, their more serious films. The reason for this is twofold. First, most film festivals have ended and studios have purchased independent films for wider distribution. Second, there is a window between September and December where a studio can release movies with the highest chance of being awarded an Oscar (too early in the year and it’ll be forgotten, too late and there won’t be time for buzz to generate).
The Help is Autumn’s first wide-release with potential of garnering a coveted Academy Award nomination and, for reasons to which I’ll come to, a nomination would not be undeserved (The Help was technically released in August, which is Autumn in the movie studio calendar in the same way that March is the beginning of Summer blockbuster season). The Help has superb acting, a script that delivers a few clever lines, but a meandering, humdrum plot. Usually at this point in a review I like to delve into the questions raised by the film, but I found The Help to contribute nothing new to a tired theme, so instead I will look closer at the pros and cons.
The Help focuses on the racial tensions between the white, wealthy class of Mississippi with their black house servants, the help. They raise their children, cook their food, and tend to their house, but when a law is proposed that makes it mandatory for black servants to use a separate toilet than their benefactors, their cause is taken up by a plucky white newspaper columnist who yearns to make it big. Throw in a lovable new-money socialite-wannabe and you have a recipe for a bitter satire on race relations in the south.
What The Help managed instead was a comedy who’s pivotal scene relies on scatological humor. The main problem with The Help is that it tries to be generically pleasant so to appeal to a wide market, while simultaneously broaching a sensitive and emotional issue. It doesn’t help that it abandons the racial strife of today to look back on a bygone era. An era which, from what I could garner from the timeline, where the same years that Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and In The Heat Of The Night were released, two movies that challenged the racial injustices of their time without pandering to mass appeal.
As I stated previously, there is some great acting in the film. Viola Davis, in particular, stands alone, delivering an emotional turn that is certain to gain her an Oscar nomination. She brings the needed severity and emotion to a movie devoid of both. Emma Stone shows that she is a capable lead and, with a little more refinement and growth, she can soon become the type of leading comedic actress not seen since Shirley MacClaine.
Other notables in the film are Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, and Jessica Chastain. Chastain’s story-line, developed separate from the main plot of the film, overshadows the central story due to the great chemistry between Spencer and Chastain.
Other than that, what else is there to say about the film? The camerawork was boring and the directing sloppy and confused. The script does have some notable moments. At one point Allison Janney remarks, “Love and hate are two horns on the same goat, Eugenia. And you need a goat.” I found this to be a line you’d hear in a Woody Allen film. And really, is there any better compliment for a script?
I struggled with this review, mainly because The Help is a terribly mediocre film. It’s hard to write a consistent review of a mediocre film. You need to praise what is good, yet criticize what fails, and without a doubt there will be both good and bad aspects to a mediocre film. The Help will be nominated for an Academy Award for acting, possibly even multiple nominations, but great acting does not make up for the film’s, and the director’s, failings.