When Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel The Help became a huge popular success in 2009, Hollywood studios immediately rushed in with offers to have A-list filmmakers adapt the book for the big screen. The author held out, though, leveraging her sales figures to hand the job to Tate Taylor, her personal friend, sometime actor, member of her writing group, and director of one previous film (the little-noticed 2008 entry Pretty Ugly People). Stockett’s loyalty to her friend is inspiring, but the evidence suggests the author should have caved.
Set in Jackson, Miss., during the height of the civil-rights movement, The Help concerns Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), an African-American housemaid who quietly swallows the limited opportunities and flagrant indignities of working for racist white Southerners, and her best friend and fellow maid Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), whose insubordinate streak causes her to talk her way out of jobs. The possibility of changing their lot in life arrives with Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (the ubiquitous Emma Stone), a white Ole Miss grad with literary ambitions who conceives the altogether dangerous idea of interviewing the maids about their work and writing down their stories in a book.
Say this for Taylor: He knows how to cast this movie. The three leads are all good, even if we’ve seen Davis play this deferential African-American woman once too often. They receive sterling support from the likes of Jessica Chastain (unrecognizable from The Tree of Life) as a troubled society wife from the wrong side of the tracks, Nelsan Ellis as a shy bookworm, Leslie Jordan as a dyspeptic newspaper editor, and David Oyelowo, a black British actor doing a scarily good impression of a Southern Baptist preacher. As a Junior League president who makes everyone’s life hell, Bryce Dallas Howard is a more frightening villain here than she was in the last Twilight movie. The hottest Mississippi summer is no match for the dry-ice fog billowing off her line readings.
Though the original novel has its share of flaws, the bigger issue with this movie is the writer-director’s inexperience, which is too often plain to see. Taylor can’t smoothly transition from one scene to another, a tic that’s tolerable at the start of the movie but wearying by the end. Skeeter’s relationship with a guy (Chris Lowell) who proves unworthy of her is boiled down to three truncated, unsatisfying scenes. Taylor’s good taste gets the better of him when dealing with Minny’s abusive husband — he keeps the character completely offscreen, and though we still hear his voice and see the objects that he throws at Minny, the device effectively robs us of a valuable facet of Minny’s personality. The heartstring-yanking bit near the end when Aibileen is forced to leave a little girl she’s been caring for is pretty wretched, too. Sadly, mechanical flaws such as these wind up taking down a movie that’s just good enough to make you wish it were better.
Starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone. Written and directed by Tate Taylor, based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel. Rated PG-13.