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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

The Help

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  4_Chicks_Small Jacqueline Monahan

Jacqueline  Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for
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The Help

Recent college grad and aspiring writer Eugenia “Skeeter” Davis (Emma Stone) returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi with her first writing job – as a cleaning advice columnist.  Her affluent girlfriends, all married and running households with hired domestic help – are less than impressed.

What’s wrong with Skeeter?, they want to know.  Why doesn’t she have a man?  What’s she trying to prove with her “little job”?

Skeeter has a few questions of her own.  Where is Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the beloved maid and nanny who practically raised her?  How did her best childhood friends Miss Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) and especially Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) become so self-righteous, snobbish and mean?

The year is 1963.  The laws are Jim Crow.  Women who hire maids are white.  Women who are maids are black.  There’s no such thing as an even playing field between the two.

Miss Elizabeth’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) is a warm, deeply caring presence in Miss Elizabeth’s toddler Mae Mobley’s (Eleanor and Emma Henry) life.  Aibileen is full of maternal love and integrity, moving about her employer’s home with a quiet dignity, serving them with an unerring grace and an expected invisibility.

Miss Hilly’s maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) is purported to be the best cook in Jackson.  Unfortunately she works for the worst employer.  Miss Hilly is a social-climbing, overt racist, who campaigns the other ladies in town to install separate bathrooms for the help.  She’s condescending and hypocritical, treating Minny with contempt while leading the Junior League in fundraising for the “poor, starving children of Africa.”

Through a series of unfortunate events, the ultra-competent, feisty Minny is fired by Miss Hilly and goes to work for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a ditzy, though affluent housewife from the wrong side of the tracks.  Hated by Miss Hilly, Celia is excluded from the social events in Jackson, but has no idea why.  Minny and Celia’s relationship develops in an unusual way, in stark contrast to what Minny is used to.

Skeeter asks for Aibileen’s assistance with the cleaning column and hits upon the idea to take down stories from “the help’s” point of view.  Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen), Skeeter’s prospective editor in New York encourages her to proceed (on speculation) and gain some valuable experience before she can offer her a job.  Skeeter realizes that the help project is important; it’s also unprecedented, illegal and downright dangerous.

Skeeter begins the book, focusing first on Aibileen, then Minny’s recollections.  Other maids are galvanized to join in after witnessing a violent incident involving Miss Hilly’s new maid. The stories they relate, plus all of the attendant cruelties are dutifully transcribed by Skeeter, changing everyone’s name and publishing the book as an anonymous author.

The eye-opening account reveals outrageous truths:  Maids are not allowed to use the front door of the home they work in.  They are treated like errant children and demeaned by their white employers while they cook their food, raise their children and serve meals to a ruling class that declares, “They carry different diseases than we do.”  For all of their cleaning, polishing, cooking and childcare they are paid 95 cents an hour.

The stories rush forth like a waterfall and have that type of bowled-over effect on Jackson when the book is published.  Times are already tense with the assassinations of Medgar Evers and John Kennedy in the news.  How will Skeeter and the maids fare when the thinly-veiled expose hits the bookstores?

Emma Stone’s Skeeter anchors the film, traversing the worlds between white privilege and black inequality.  Viola Davis gives Aibileen a dignity that transcends the petty, mean-spirited climate that surrounds her. Octavia Spencer is splendid in her multi-faceted role, playing savvy, angry, scared, funny and wise to a custom fit each time, and stealing every single scene she’s in,

Bryce Dallas Howard delivers a scathingly effective performance as grown-up mean girl Miss Hilly in a performance that lets her flex her bitch muscle until it screams practically more than she does.  Jessica Chastain’s Celia is a bubbly burst of feminine freedom in an elitist world that discounts her as much as they do the help that they rely on.

Sissy Spacek has a small but mischievous role as Hilly’s mother, the eccentric Mrs. Walters, complete with cat’s eye glasses, pillbox hats and irreverent one-liners.  Allison Janney is Skeeter’s mother, battling cancer but maintaining a flawed status quo that puts her at odds with her daughter.

The wonderful Cicely Tyson lends her formidable presence to the role of Constantine, Skeeter’s beloved mentor.

Based on the #1 New York Times best-seller by Kathryn Stockett, the film is written for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People) who manages to make Jackson, MS as pretty as the deeds that take place there are ugly.  He captures the times before they got to be a-changin’ and keeps the action matter-of-fact and largely unsentimental.  We are left to draw our own conclusions.

Of course, we are offered a little help.

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