Dir. Tate Taylor
(2011, PG-13, 146 min)

I went in fearing another Blind Side but left pleasantly surprised. I can’t unequivocally endorse Tate Taylor‘s The Help, which is sometimes maudlin and even an eensy bit manipulative – a child crying “Don’t go!” while banging against a window is a bit much, dontcha think? It’s only Taylor’s second feature film as a director, and he gives in to some melodramatic impulses that don’t serve him well. But he gets excellent performances from his actors, and his characters, adapted from Kathryn Stockett‘s popular novel, are believable enough to withstand the occasional bouts of mawkishness. Because the characters work, the film works, even the parts that otherwise probably wouldn’t.

What was offensive about The Blind Side was that its struggling black character was just a chic accessory for charitable, affluent white characters, a prop to show how virtuous they are. In this film we are also given black characters who function as either saviors for or victims to be saved by kind and generous Caucasians, but at least in this film we get to know the black characters, whom the film gives the most complexity and dimension. Viola Davis plays Aibileen, a maid for a young mother who is pregnant with her second child despite what seems to be lingering postpartum depression from her first birth. Davis is one of the best actresses working, a two-time Tony-winner and an Oscar-nominee for Doubt. She brings weight and credibility to dialogue just by speaking it, and she grounds the script in emotional reality when it needs it.

The other central maid character is Minny, played by Octavia Spencer with sass and humor, but she doesn’t fall into the trap of the Sassy Black Character, nor is she merely comic relief, because always evident in her performance is the anger underlying her attitude. She’s employed by the film’s principal villain, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), and she also has a mostly off-screen subplot about her abusive husband, which is one layer of suffering too many for one character in this film.

The requisite heroic white woman is Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring journalist and the only young woman in her Mississippi social circle more interested in equal rights than she is in marriage. Stone was a wise casting choice; her biting humor undercuts any excessive sweetness, but she has the sincerity to carry off the social-crusader theme. The civil rights movement we see in snippets of speeches by Medgar Evers and coverage of his assassination; Hilly is trying to push through legislation requiring black maids to have separate bathrooms in white homes; and Skeeter researches segregation laws – this is far from an in-depth survey of 1960s Southern politics, but it’s more than lip service. It plays like the Hairspray musical without the singing or cross-dressing.

Strong supporting performances are given by Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, and especially Jessica Chastain, who brings emotional nuance to a ditzy Southern belle. Like all the other characters in the film, she suffers a private tragedy and must overcome adversity. The Help is unabashedly sentimental and thick with sad and inspirational scenes, but I imagine this film directed by, say, Tyler Perry, and I’m struck by our good fortune.