Great performances abound in 'The Help,' one of the best films of the year

Great performances abound in 'The Help,' one of the best films of the year

Steve Salles, Standard-Examiner movie critic - August 10th, 2011
4 stars

Once in a while, a movie comes along that reminds us of a social injustice that seems appalling now — only why didn’t it back then?

And when was then? How about a mere 50 years ago, for some of us, within our lifetimes?

The era is the late ’50s, early ’60s. The place is Jackson, Miss. The focus is on African-American domestics, maids, nannies — otherwise known as “the help.”

Ironically, these women were placed in charge of raising the children — the feeding, changing and bathing — but many were not allowed to use the facilities in that same home.

Some families built special facilities for their domestic help, even considering it an act of kindness.

This is where we meet Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). She’s the community organizer, queen bee, junior league, alpha female who has urged the state legislature to pass a law forcing residents to build what are basically upscale outhouses for their servants.

An old friend of Hilly’s and recent college graduate, Eugenia, whom everyone calls Skeeter (Emma Stone), is aghast that these hard-working black women are forced into these difficult situations. Being a writer, she wants to tell their story, but finds it tough to get the ladies to talk openly about their plight.

Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is a kindhearted domestic who truly loves the young children in her charge, but she bristles when she’s treated like she’s one step above slavery.

Her close friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), is a bit more outspoken. When she gets to that last-straw moment, she releases both barrels.

Skeeter meets with these women secretly, so as not to put them in danger. But when she finally gets an OK from a publisher to interview more and more domestic workers, the floodgates open and the stories are plentiful and heartbreaking.

There are so many great performances that it’s hard to single one out, but any list would have to include Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain and Allison Janney.

And lest you think this movie is all gloom and doom, there are plenty of laughs, too, as these women get creative with some unique attempts at revenge.

For an August release, usually reserved for the studios’ “fall clearance items,” this turns out to be one of the best films of the year. I dare say it could be a sleeper hit like “The King’s Speech” — and we all know how well that did.

I loved this movie. It’s two hours and 17 minutes long, but doesn’t feel like it. I can’t wait to see it again soon.

Guys, don’t hesitate to take your wives — they’ll love you for it and you’ll be edified for the effort. Trust me. It’s a win, win.

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