The Help is a bit of a conundrum because it has such a sure feel for artistic subtlety during some moments, then goes for Oscar-mongering emotional bombast in others. It’s unstable, with flashes of excellence.
What a story, though, based on the book by Kathryn Stockett. The Help centers on a couple of African-American nannies in 1960s Mississippi (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) who agree to share their experiences for an expose being written by a local cub reporter (Emma Stone). We get a real sense of the now-unfathomable social structure of the time, in which black women raised white babies while their own children were left at home; those white children grew up often relating more to the nannies than their mothers; and prejudice ran so deep that outdoor bathrooms were installed in homes for use by non-white servants. For these women to even work on such a project with a white author was, literally, against the law.
Writer-director Tate Taylor fares best when he lets this awfulness sink in during quieter moments. A simple shot of a maid’s door frame, which bears the penciled height measurements of both her own child and her employee’s, captures the agonizing divided loyalty she’s experiencing with eloquence. There is no need later, after an unjust firing, for a lingering shot of another maid’s young charge tearfully screaming and banging on the window as the maid reluctantly walks away. It’s odd, really, that a movie so aware of the importance of nuance still gives in to bursts of leaden obviousness.
Still, The Help‘s aim is true. And a climactic scene, in which the maid played by Davis confronts the movie’s most vile bigot (Bryce Dallas Howard), unfolds with such unexpected compassion and grace (as opposed to the usual sort of righteous comeuppance we get at the movies) that it nearly takes your breath away. As a Civil Rights drama that artfully dramatizes the love for one’s enemy espoused by Martin Luther King, The Help is a rare and shining thing.