Bright ensemble cast lifts film

By Drew Hunt

Told from the point of view of three women—a pair of maids named Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) and recent college graduate Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone)—“The Help” tells the story of racial tension facing Jackson, Miss. during the height of the civil rights movement. Seeing the rampant injustice perpetrated against the African-American maids in the employ of white families, Skeeter resolves to write a book detailing the day-to-day life of the help.

Though their lives are put on the line by even speaking to her, Aibileen and Minny offer to help Skeeter with her book, which results in tumultuous controversy.

The debut film from actor-turned-filmmaker Tate Taylor, “The Help” is perhaps the most surprising film of the summer. Though certainly not a transformative experience in a formal sense—Taylor doles out a few nifty tracking shots from time to time, but his film unfortunately possesses the dull and uninspired look of a run-of-the-mill studio effort—from a thematic standpoint, “The Help” is a welcomed deviation from the norm, particularly when it comes to characterization.

The film holds the rare distinction of having passed what’s known as the Bechdel Test, a feminist film theory named for the political cartoonist Alison Bechdel who first articulated the idea. The theory asks three questions: Are there two or more named female characters? Do these characters speak with one another? And if they do, do they discuss something other than a man?

What sounds like a simple concept is startlingly absent in many films. And though the Bechdel Test isn’t a barometer of a feminist film or even a good film—as it turns out, plenty of great films fail the test (“The Tree of Life,” “Of Gods and Men”) and plenty of awful ones pass (“Sucker Punch,” “Sex and the City 2”)—it is indicative of an industry built around releasing movies that cater mostly to men, one of the many problems plaguing the current Hollywood system.

Luckily, “The Help” features a number of articulate and well-formed female characters, but the issues they face aren’t reserved for a feminist audience. The film explores matters of race and class in ways that move between amusing and solemn, presenting themselves as easily recognizable for any audience.

For instance, after being unjustly fired from her job by the villainous Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Minny returns the next day with a peace offering in the form of one of her famous chocolate pies—this time with an added ingredient that leaves Hilly feeling nauseous.

Not long after that, Aibileen details the tragic story of her son’s death, the result of a negligent work accident that went unreported and was covered up by the white foreman.

These quicksilver shifts in tone go relatively unnoticed, thanks to a number of dexterous performances. As the three principal leads, Stone, Davis and Spencer supply Taylor’s script with wit and pathos. Stone, in particular, shines as the individualistic Skeeter. She’s something of a maverick in the film, representing the antithesis of all things a Southern woman was in the 60s: college-educated, career-driven, bull-headed, single-and-not-looking.

Even her hair, which falls past her shoulders in curly locks, proves deliciously incongruous to the prim and proper bouffant style that swept the era. As an actress, Stone possesses a certain kind of modernity: a wry sensibility mixed with grace that’s decidedly ungraceful. In “The Help,” she embodies her character with ease.

Davis and Spencer, meanwhile, are equally effective in their roles, portraying the parts of oppressed women with supreme sternness and respect for the past. Often times, films detailing the nature of race relations tend to skirt the human stories in favor of a grander, more sociological stance. “The Help” is an entirely humanitarian effort, bolstered by the strength of its characters.