Thursday, August 9, 2012

Short Take: The Help (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The film version of The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s phenomenally successful 2009 novel, is handsomely produced and briskly paced. It also rings almost completely false. Tate Taylor, who wrote the script and directed, stays fairly close to Stockett’s story. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 and 1963, when the African-American civil-rights movement was beginning to come to a full boil, it follows the efforts of an upper-class aspiring writer (Emma Stone) to put together a book of testimonials by African-American domestic workers. Particular assistance comes from two local maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer). Stockett’s handling of the material was glib and self-congratulatory, but it works. Taylor’s treatment seems completely wrong. The heart of the story’s drama is in the various social codes--both between the races and within the white upper-class--and how they’re enforced and acquiesced to. Taylor doesn’t get the nuances. Among other things, he directs the actresses playing the maids to use far more assertive body language with whites than would be tolerated. Taylor also includes moments that aren’t in the book--such as one maid interfering without reprisal with the police during an arrest, or another threatening, again without reprisal, an affluent white man--that make one wonder if he knows anything about the milieu he's depicting. Viola Davis is a remarkably compelling actress, but Tate doesn’t have the judgment to use her imposing intensity with restraint. As a result, the relationship between her character and Emma Stone’s doesn’t play right, and the climactic confrontation with the white queen bee (Bryce Dallas Howard) doesn’t have anywhere near the power it should. Taylor botches the queen bee character, too. She’s an effective villain in the book--the butt of much of the humor, but a genuinely threatening presence as well. However, Taylor doesn’t show the intimidation tactics she uses with her cohort, so it makes no sense why they defer to her. He also directs Howard to play the character in a cartoonishly over-the-top manner, so a viewer can’t take her seriously, either. The only character Taylor handles well is the local misfit, played by Jessica Chastain. Her failed efforts to be accepted in the town’s social circles are funny and touching, and Chastain gives a terrific comic performance. Taylor also does justice to the character's pathos--the film’s most eloquent moment is when the viewer learns the meaning of the isolated flowers she plants on her lawn. It’s about the only time this tone-deaf filmmaker shows perfect pitch. The large cast includes Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Mary Steenburgen. The capable production design is by Mark Ricker.

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