The Help is a behemoth. Originally published in February 2009, Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel—set in the racially divisive and segregated 1960s Mississippi—still ranks #21 on New York Times hardback fiction bestseller list and #1 on the paperback list. It is a book that has a devoted following. It is a book that has received passionate backlash. It is a book that, seemingly, has been read by everyone (including me). Therefore, with this built-in audience, it is a book that was fast-tracked to the big screen. And for fans of the book, the movie will not disappoint—it is a serviceable adaptation. Regrettably, if not for its extraordinary cast, the movie itself would be utterly ordinary.
The Help focuses on the unlikely partnership and friendship among three women in Mississippi (in 1962): Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young, white recent Ole Miss graduate who finds she no longer fits in with her friends, Aibileen (Viola Davis), a stoic, black maid who is raising her seventeenth white child, and Minnie (Octavia Spencer), a short-tempered, black maid who can’t seem to keep a job. Together they work on a book documenting the continued degradation of blacks in Mississippi. Ultimately, they change their town and their lives forever.
The most notable difference between book and movie is the narrator. In the book, all three characters narrate their own stories, but the movie is narrated solely by Aibileen. But without our direct connection to Skeeter or Minnie, these characters become disconnected. Stone’s Skeeter feels slightly flat, as if she’s simply an observer and not an active participant. Spencer’s Minnie does not get the attention she deserves. Instead, at the expense of character development, the filmmakers spend an inordinate amount of screen time on the Terrible Awful Thing Minnie does. However, Davis’s Aibileen is the perfect voice for the subject matter. As she did in Doubt, Davis is adept at creating strong but bruised women that utterly break your heart—like her every moment with the child Mae Mobley. Aibileen personifies this period of great pain and compassion.
Additionally, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain give tremendous performances. Howard’s Hilly is a monstrous socialite who commands others by a simple glance or a twitch of the mouth. Chastain’s Celia is wonderfully naïve and uncouth. Both actresses bring tremendous energy to their scenes. And like Davis, Howard and Chastain bring great depth and fragility to these women.
Unfortunately, director and screenplay writer Tate Taylor does not provide many surprises. In fact, many moments of the film feel akin to Hallmark movies. In two flashback sequences, Skeeter remembers her time with her beloved maid and nanny Constantine (Cicely Tyson): They both are brightly lit with treacly underscoring. There are no surprises in how the film looks or in scene stagings. Additionally, there were many sequences where it was even difficult to understand what the actors were saying (this was especially true for Octavia Spencer). For a movie of this caliber, the production value should have been much greater.
Fans of the book will most likely be pleased with the movie adaptation. But for those who did not read it nor know anything about it, they may enjoy the story and the characters, but will be left cold by everything else.
My Grade: B-
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