In the 1960s, being a real housewife in the South didn’t involve hair pulling, car service or the Botox of today—but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any drama.
The Help, based on the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, tells the tale of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who has decided to pursue a writing career. Returning home to Jackson for the summer, she reconnects with friends who are now married and have households of their own. Skeeter’s ambitions lie more toward having a profession than a family, much to the chagrin of her cancer-stricken mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney).
While ghost writing a cleaning column for the local paper, Skeeter begins to look for something which will inspire her to write. Spurred by both the disappearance of her beloved family maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), and the way her friends treat their own household servants, she decides to write a book from the perspective of the help.
It soon becomes clear that her perspective won’t only be unpopular, but also illegal in the state of Mississippi. She perseveres, quietly convincing the stoic Aibileen (Viola Davis) and sassy Minny (brilliantly portrayed by Octavia Spencer) to join her project. One by one, maids and nannies open up, telling their stories and stirring up trouble.
Writer-director Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People), a Jackson, Mississippi native, deftly adapts the screenplay from Stockett’s novel. His vision of the South is from an actual Southerner’s point of view and, as such, rings true in every detail, from the manicured front lawns and shady porches to the fried chicken and okra.
The warm, homey atmosphere juxtaposes nicely with the darker elements of the story, such as the casual racism and implied domestic violence. Although the story is mainly about the trials and tribulations of colored servants, it also exposes the dilemma of certain members of Jackson society who were torn between their love of long-time employees and the need to keep up appearances.
The cast is full of talented actors, but a few really shine in their roles. Bryce Dallas Howard, who typically plays very sympathetic characters, is positively loathsome as Hilly, the segregationist socialite with a vicious mean streak. Octavia Spencer, meanwhile, gives the film both humor and pathos as the beleaguered Minny, and Allison Janney’s arc from stubborn Southern matriarch to regretful, yet spirited, invalid is inspiring.
It’s Stone’s Skeeter, however, who grabs the heart of the audience as she transitions from a naïve girl to a woman of principle while bridging both sides of the civil rights movement.
Despite the main characters facing job loss and worse, the movie ends on an upbeat tone. Viewers get the sense that things will get better for most of these women, and history more or less bears this conclusion out. But the true joy of The Help isn’t so much knowing a happy ending is coming, but in seeing how the various characters get the courage to fight for one in the first place.
Now available as a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, MSRP: $39.99; three-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack with digital copy, MSRP: $44.99), The Help features a few well thought out extras, some of which are also included on the single-disc DVD release (MSRP: $29.99).
Deleted scenes are a staple of most Blu-ray and DVD releases these days, and The Help is no exception. The DVD version contains the two most powerful bits trimmed from the feature introduced by Taylor, while the Blu-ray release holds an additional three scenes. While the scenes do indeed flesh out the characters in the movie, as Taylor often points out, none of them moved the action along or were necessary to the storytelling. They are, however, gems and, on their own, are lovely character studies.
Also common to both the Blu-ray and DVD editions is the Mary J. Blige music video for “The Living Proof.”
In Hollywood, there’s friendship and there’s business. The two states aren’t often combined, which makes this film a rarity on many levels. In “The Making of The Help: From Friendship to Film,” a Blu-ray exclusive, viewers get to witness how friendship and loyalty are woven throughout more than just the storyline. Stockett and Taylor, friends since childhood, reveal their history, and the remarkable series of events that led to making exactly the film they wanted to make.
If The Help had been a documentary set in modern times instead of a feature film, it might have looked a lot like the final exclusive Blu-ray bonus feature, “In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi.” Taylor and Spencer sit down with a few ladies and their daughters to see if times were truly as they were portrayed in the movie. While a few chose to ignore the turmoil of the times (“If you never brought it up, you never had to have a conversation,” one woman serenely offered), there were others whose friends or family lost jobs for being involved with the civil rights movement. As difficult as times were, however, it is clear that the bonds between families and their help went deep, and have continued over generations.
The Help is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Published on SoCal.com