This will be less a review of The Help and more a statement on why Viola Davis should win Best Actress in a couple weeks. Seeing as The Help came out six months ago and you’ve had plenty of time to form your own opinion of it, I can’t imagine you’ll mind.
We’re entering an Oscar season where very few of the films nominated are hits of any kind. This happens a fair bit these days, now that indie films have come to dominate the awards landscape. But there amidst Tree of Life ($13 million) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ($27 million) is The Help, a film about racism that is a certified box office success at $169 million. To have a film that is both an Important Movie as well as a Successful Movie? Bound for Oscar Gold.
Or not. The problem with The Help is that for a movie that deals with such a dark and difficult subject matter – exploring historical racism in the deep South at the dawn of the Civil Rights era – it is an astonishingly shallow movie.
From the very outset, the story exudes falsehood. Our hero, a young girl (Emma Stone) named Skeeter (a chestnut from the treasure trove of Endearing Protagonist Names), returns from college and is shocked – shocked! – to find that all of her friends and family are deeply racist. She gazes wide-eyed at their backwards attitudes, as if this behavior had sprung out of nowhere, unbidden, while she was eating lunch at the school cafeteria. She decides to write a book telling stories from the point of view of the help: a story no one has ever dared write. A story no one has ever imagined.
I’ll skip to the end. The book is finished, gets published, and cures the South of racism. I’m pretty sure it’s a true story, too, so we’ve all got to feel pretty good that Skeeter managed to solve that problem for us.
Oddly, innocent Skeeter is the least cartoonish of the character. There’s a trampy Jessica Chastain and a bug-eyed Octavia Spencer, doing all they can to sell you on their poorly realized characters. Bryce Dallas Howard is handed a villainess role so two-dimensional that she’s probably doomed herself to become some sort of ginger Glenn Close for the next ten years. Remember when she played dear, sweet Gwen Stacy in that Spider-man movie? By the end of the movie, Emma Stone has managed to take even that from her. The resolution is so ham-handed that four (four!) different characters, on four separate occasions, have to inform Howard they know her deep, dark secret to keep her from continuing to wage her bizarre, angry war against them. Her character is so unappealing that the movie spends most of the last act watching her get her comeuppance. It’s like a snuff film for people who hate prejudice.
And yet this film is nominated for an Academy Award, and I have no issue with that, because Viola Davis singlehandedly makes this movie into Oscar material. Every movie critic who’s reviewed The Help has said the same thing, but I’ll say it again because it’s impossible to come away from the movie with any other conclusion: Davis appears to be acting in her own movie. And it’s a movie much darker and more layered than The Help, and yet whenever she’s on screen, she makes the movie around her rise to her level.
I’ve seen actors out-act movies that they’re in, and I’ve seen them fail to match up to the depth of the film on which they’re working, but I’ve never seen an actor who changed the movie around her like Davis has. And that should win her the Oscar.
Her main competition is the always-otherworldly Meryl Streep, and while everyone is unanimous that she’s excellent as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (and when is she not?), everyone is equally unanimous that the movie doesn’t do nearly enough to meet the standard she’s set.
This is no slight on Streep, but maybe we should honor someone who refused to let that happen.