‘The Help’ Review: Bryce Dallas Howard makes a villainess to remember in Civil Rights-era melodrama

Charlotte Phelan (Allison Janey) helps her daughter 'Skeeter' (Emma Stone) try on a dress in 'The Help'

The Help

Walt Disney Studios

Rated PG-13

Running Time:  Minutes

Grade: C+

Movie baddies are seldom as delicate and pretty as Bryce Dallas Howard’s Southern belle Hilly Holbrook. Howard (yes, Ron Howard’s daughter) is equally funny and revolting as Hilly, the prettiest racist you’ll ever meet in early ‘60s Jackson, Mississippi and the standout character of The Help, director Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel from DreamWorks and Touchstone Pictures.

It’s a tricky thing, laughing at Howard’s sly performance as Junior League leader Hilly aggressively promotes the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, a law that says all domestic help should have separate bathrooms outside the home so not to spread disease.

Set in Jackson just before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, The Help is brisk, breezy and intentionally warm-hearted despite its difficult topic of entrenched racism in the Deep South. It’s a storytelling flaw Taylor carries over from Stockett’s book. Instead of an emphasis on the hard-hitting facts of its subject, Taylor, who grew up with Stockett in ‘70s Jackson, places all his attention on teary melodrama instead.

Ole Miss grad Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) dreams of leaving Jackson and becoming a writer and she starts her creative journey by interviewing Aibileen (Viola Davis), a longtime maid who’s raised 17 children for white families, Aibileen’s friend Minny (Octavia Spencer), a sharp-tongued maid who often butts heads with her employers, and slowly the rest of the town’s maids.

With the help of Aibileen and Minny, Skeeter writes an anonymous oral history of the lives of black maids in ‘60s Mississippi and their hard experiences with their white female employers and the experience changes their lives.

Stone flashes plenty of wide-eyed earnestness and professional ambition as Skeeter, an aspiring progressive trying to topple the entrenched racist practices of her hometown.

Jessica Chastain, last seen as a solemn ‘50s housewife in The Tree of Life, is bubbly and vivacious as Celia Rae Foote, a peroxide blonde in tight dresses who turns out to be the one employer who treats her maid fairly.

Veteran actress Viola Davis, enjoying her highest profile role since Doubt, brings some much-needed subtlety to the movie as the wise and calm Aibilene, a mother still haunted by the tragic death of her twenty-something son.

As the no-nonsense Minny, Octavia Spencer matches Howard when it comes to laughs. In fact, the film’s best moments are the scenes when Minny and Hilly go face-to-face; especially over a certain chocolate pie.

A well-dressed melodrama is something to admire and Taylor is skillful at pushing the emotional buttons that make moviegoers laugh, cry or a little of both at the same time. The Help is not a powerful social message drama along the lines of another Civil Rights movie, Mississippi Burning, just as Stockett’s book pales in comparison to true classics like To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a glossy soap opera with a memorable villainess thanks to Bryce Dallas Howard.

Grade: C+

Distributor: Touchstone Pictures

Director: Tate Taylor

Scriptwriter: Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett

Cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt

Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain

Running Time:  146 minutes

Producers: Touchstone Pictures, Participant Media, Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ, Harbinger Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, 1492 Pictures, Reliance Big Entertainment

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: August 10, 2011

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