Monday, August 29, 2011

A Helping Hand

Getting ready for the changes every September 1'st brings has been a challenge this year; that's why you haven't seen Hello, Mr. Anderson following its usual Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule these past few weeks. Between helping people move and preparing for my own new housemates, not to mention the stresses and cracks in everyday life, it's been difficult to put out a product consistently for you my readers. Now that things have settled down a bit, I'll be trying to get back onto that road that worked well for me for so long. Maybe I need to bring some help in getting this together. Oh, look, a segue! (Note to self: work on trimming down the segues)

The Help is probably the first genuine awards contender I've seen in 2011. While most of the likely nominees and critical darlings are released in the winter months leading up to award season, there are always a few that come out during the summer, hidden among the explosive action films and kooky comedies. There are some every year, with Inception, The Hurt Locker and Little Miss Sunshine perhaps the best examples from the past few years. I've actually been surprised not to have come upon a similar contender earlier in 2011, a year not lacking in good films but in stellar ones. Before the release of this review, my Top 10 list had only one title from the entire year (J.J. Abram's Super 8) with realistic potential for a Best Picture nomination, while several great films (Hanna, Win Win, Midnight in Paris) will likely go unrecognized. The Help won't. It's got all the trappings - I mean strengths - that make it an ideal contender: an all-star cast playing strong characters; an easily recognizable and culturally important dichotomy of racism in the Old South; and most importantly, the story is based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett and directed by the author's childhood friend. At the very least, it wants to be the audience darling of 2011, and my trusty cinema sidekick Anne and I caught this latest piece before I would move back to the more typical summer fare of Conan the Barbarian, Fright Night and Final Destination V.

Move over, Skeeter; there can be only one Mr. Anderson!
When Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) returns to her hometown of Jackson after graduating from the University of Mississippi, she wants to change things. An aspiring journalist and author, she desires to write a story from the vantage point of the "help", the poor black women who serve as housemaids, cooks, and surrogate parents to the spoiled upper-class white women who effectively run the small town. She is inspired by her own experiences growing up, as well as by a new initiative by the "Alpha" housewife Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) to legally require every house to have a separate outhouse for the required use of the help, due to the "diseases" they supposedly carry. Skeeter is determined for the disenfranchised to be better respected by the local community, and teams up with local maids Abileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) to get their story, good and bad, be told.

Oh, my, is that a Best Supporting Actress nomination you see?
Okay, it's not all about the white women. My description above doesn't quite lend evidence to the fact that the film is equally told from the twin perspectives of Skeeter and Abileen. One is a downtrodden servant hoping things don't get worse, while the other is a privileged young woman pushing for things to get better. The two find unlikely allies in one another, and it's a common tale of two mismatched individuals teaming up against a common enemy. That enemy may be a seemingly simple combination of intolerance and cruelty, but The Help threads an entire spectrum of entertainment for the audience to gather in. The last movie I can remember that could have you crying one minute and roaring with laughter the next was last year's The King's Speech, the eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture. Director Tate Taylor does a surprisingly strong turn here, as you would never expect this level of artistic sophistication from a mere rookie to the silver screen. It's not perfect, as some things are a little too neatly wrapped by the film's conclusion, but as a title its cohesion was far more secure than it had any right to be.

Bargain hunting is a much more dangerous sport in Jackson
Possibly the most important story here is the number of impressive female actors and characters that fill this film's roster. The Help is a title where men have little impact on the story as a whole or are not seen at all, and one very effective bit of evidence of this is when one character's abusive husband is never actually shown on the screen, despite his obvious presence in the household. It's obvious from the get-go that the women rule the roost, and with this collection of talent it can never be accused that this would be a bad thing. Emma Stone continues to impress as she uses 2011 as a major stepping stone to perhaps bigger and better things. Playing an ugly duckling is difficult enough for Stone, doing so believably while being a hero to root for comes so naturally that it's hard to connect her previous comedic roles to this very elegant dramatic performance. Viola Davis meanwhile plays a role much closer to her usual fare, but since that is the same level that got her nominated for awards in films like Doubt, that is hardly folly. She manages to be the heart and soul of The Help, no easy task with the cast around her. One that nearly steals the show is Octavia Spencer, an underrated character actress who enjoys some of the film's best sequences as a sass-mouthing, trouble-making maid. Bryce Dallas Howard also defies all my expectations in the Cruella deVille role in which she is presented. I've never been a fan of her work, but this particular film exemplifies her best traits and lets her be as saucy as she wants. These four are surrounded by a strong core of talented women, each with something special to bring to their roles. Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson all put on amazing work, some surpassing even their own high water marks. Sure, there are some men visible in the foreground (most notably Private Practice's Chris Lowell) but these men have little to do with how the story is told and for the most part are simply unimportant.

Sissy Spacek is still good! Who knew?
I knew going in that The Help would be an entertaining film, one that would evoke several emotions and many at once. What I wasn't expecting was the best movie I've seen all year. For the first time since April, I have a new #1 for 2011. It may have taken forever for a legitimate Academy Award nominee to rear its head, but this one was well worth the wait. I simply cannot recommend it enough, especially considering the lackluster fare that currently clogs the majority of cinemas this summer. With this especially stellar cast, a talented storyteller at the helm, and laughs and tears a plenty, The Help is definitely a title you should be making plans to see even as you finish reading this review.

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