The Help (2011)
I have to divide my review of The Help, a highly effective, award-winning sentimental drama about loving black maids and their oppressive female employers in the American south during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, into two parts. On the one side, this is a truly moving and well-told account about people whose stories should be heard (I haven't read the book upon which the film is based, and neither have I any relevant firsthand knowledge, so I cannot assess the validity of said stories). There is doubtlessly many universal truths in this portrait, and the time and place in question (Jackson, Mississippi) is so vividly and engagingly brought back to life that we feel we're practically living these people's lives. Writer/director Tate Taylor, himself a native of Jackson, Mississippi, demonstrates not only his close affiliation with the subject matter, but also that he is a masterful and cunning storyteller.
On the other hand, Taylor has no shame in playing to our emotions through simplified characterizations and stereotypes. He combines his intelligent scrutiny on serious, relevant issues with cheap, TV-style melodramatic effects such as one-dimensional good/bad guys and a blatant omission of potentially more complex discussions. In the role of the main antagonist, for example, Bryce Dallas Howard seems to be afraid to confront her character's flaws seriously, and so she makes her into a caricature – obviously with Taylor's endorsement, if not he would have directed her otherwise. Similarly, Howard's other antagonistic companions are being presented as dumb, undiversified Stepford Wives. At the other end of the scale, Emma Stone's character Skeeter comes off more as a modern woman who has time-travelled back to a world order she doesn't approve of rather than someone who goes against the current out of courage. If she isn't an anachronism, then I've probably never seen one. And as if that isn't enough, Taylor's view of the maids is glossed and rosy-red; they seem to have more love, goodness and pedagogic knowledge to give their oppressors' children than any mother I've ever met seem to have had for their own. If only all children in the world were raised by Aibileens and Minnys, there would probably be no more war.
And so to the conclusion. To put it simple, The Help is a good film gone bad. Or perhaps a bad film made good. In any case, it is contrived – something you might not notice if you're blinded by Taylor's gifts as a storyteller (which is not something to be ashamed of; he is really good), but which becomes quite apparent with some afterthought. No wonder Hollywood likes this film though; it's pretty, kind-hearted and tackles a controversial subject material which is rendered harmless by a fitting temporal distance. Clever, but not necessarily as noble as it might seem.