If movies were living, breathing organisms, I'd give "The Help" a big hug. This is a wonderful film from writer/director Tate Taylor that I can only hope people will seek out and completely embrace. The movie impeccably mixes moments of heartbreak with an abundance of sheer delight, telling an empowering story about race and some of the most strong-willed female characters of recent times. In that sense, "The Help" might be the best movie of it's kind since "The Color Purple."
One of the film's several unforgettable ladies is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, played Emma Stone who has been on a winning streak since "Easy A" last year. Skeeter is an aspiring writer who moves back in with her parents after finishing college. Upon arriving, Skeeter is appalled to learn that her mother, played by Allison Janney, has fired Constantine, the black maid that acted as Skeeter's true parent.
Bryce Dallas Howard is scene stealing as Hilly Holbrook, who possesses a name that sounds like a character out of "Hairspray." Hilly is the epitome of 1960s ignorance when many white people thought they could catch a disease just from sharing a toilet with an African American. The selfish and inconsiderate Hilly is one of the many backers of a new law in Jackson, Miss., that requires the "colored" help to use a separate bathroom. The only young lady in town that isn't under Hilly's thumb is Skeeter, who decides to write a book from the perspective of various maids in her hometown. But in an age when the KKK was in its prime, Skeeter has a difficult time finding any "colored" maids willing to come forward.
Skeeter finally finds a maid named Aibileen Clark, played by Viola Davis in the film's strongest performance. Davis is heartbreaking as a woman who has spent most of her life taking care of other people's babies, not having any time for her own son who was killed when he was only 24. Aibileen loves the children she raises and they love her back. Unfortunately for Aibileen, most of those children grow up just to be like their self-centered birth mothers that take the help for granted.
Another great performance comes from Octavia Spencer, who has been doing great work as a character actress for years on television and in movies. Here Spencer gives a star making performance as Aibileen's best friend, Minny, who is not afraid to tell her white employers exactly what's on her mind. Minny is fired after using the bathroom at Hilly Holbrook's house during a terrible storm that kills several people. To get back at Hilly, Minny concocts probably the greatest revenge plot since Eric Cartman made Scott Tenorman eat his own parents on "South Park." However, I won't dare spoil that tidbit for it will deprive you of the film's biggest laugh.
The most touching relationship in the movie is between Minny and her new employer, a clueless housewife named Celia, played by Jessica Chastain. Between her role as the graceful mother in "The Tree of Life" and her work here, Chastain is easily my choice for breakout actress of the year. In "The Help," Celia starts off as the naïve comedic relief who can't tell her way around a kitchen. As Minny digs deeper into some of the secrets Celia has been keeping from her husband though, she develops into one of year's most tragic and sympathetic characters.
There's an especially superb scene in which Celia tries to share a meal with her maid. Minny insists that Celia sit at a separate table from the help. In Celia's color-blind eyes though, Minny and her are nothing short of equals. The lonely Celia then proceeds to eat her fried chicken across the table from her only friend in the world.
I can imagine some people shying away from "The Help," not wanting to see a movie that deals with racism in the 1960s. While some of its themes are difficult, I assure you that "The Help" is nothing short of a joyous experience that will only leave the most pessimistic spectators not uplifted. This is a grand entertainment for everyone, particularly mothers and their daughters. In an age where the only movies being marketed to women are witless romantic comedies and the "Twilight" saga, here is a film that respects the intelligence of its female audience. Every note from every actress is flawless, making for a pitch-perfect movie about courage, outspokenness and friendship.