Often, when I read a book, especially such a compelling work as Katherine Stockton's The Help, I find myself picturing the characters in my mind. So I'll have this mental image of, say, Minny cooking in her apron or Aibileen's eyes clouding over as she relives a painful memory.
So sometimes I'll be both dreading and anticipating the film version of that book, because while I want to see it put to film, I also want to see it done right. I want my characters the way I imagined them, and since everyone else who has read the book is likely thinking the same thing, that's quite a tall order. I imagine that it's intimidating, and hard to find filmmakers willing to take that challenge on. Maybe that's why we see so many remakes and sequels these days.
So, anyway, I have really been anticipating the opening of The Help movie! As you will know if you've been following my tweets, last weekend I was attending BlogHer '11 in San Diego, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend a premiere screening on Saturday with the DreamWorks reps.
Now, you may be asking, "Viv, why did we have to wait until today to read what you thought, if you saw this on Saturday?" To which I will answer that you are really nosey.
No, honestly, the answer is that all of us bloggers attending the screening were asked not to release any reviews before today, since the movie doesn't open officially until tomorrow and nobody wants to spoil the opening by giving the whole movie away. I won't put spoilers in this review even now because I hate when people do that.
[Side rant: Speaking of inconsiderate things people do, can you believe that here we were, seeing a free premiere of a movie that hadn't even been released to the general public yet, and our hosts had to make repeated requests for people to shut off their cell phones? I'm not talking when people were filing in, or during previews, either. Cell phones were lit up all over the dark theater as the movie started. Right next to me, two women were using their phones, and I figured that once the lights went down they'd stop. Nope. Credits are going now, and again everyone is asked to put their cell phones away (politely and firmly, though I at that point was ready to take the phones away myself and drop them in their sodas), and they finally did. Like the other two times they were asked didn't count or something. Or like they normally watch movies with lit cell phones in their hands the whole time. How rude do you have to be, to text during a movie? Where do you usually go to watch movies, the phone store? Okay, end of rant!]
So, did The Help movie live up to the book? Oh yes!
I admit, I was initially apprehensive when I saw that Emma Stone, this beautiful young actress, was cast as Skeeter. Skeeter isn't supposed to be lovely and popular; in the book she's considered gawky and graceless even by her friends, and the men aren't exactly lining up at her door.
But the actress really got to the heart of the character. Skeeter is an ambitious, forthright young woman, impatient with dissembling and foolish constraints, caught up in a sheltered world that values frippery, faux femininity over assertiveness and a social conscience. Stone pulls Skeeter of perfectly.
Viola Davis's strong, sturdy Aibileen, setting aside her private pain to nurture another woman's child--"You is kind, you is smart, you is important!"-- is heartbreakingly compelling. This woman is tough. She's a survivor. But she's so open-hearted. I really think that's the right expression: open-hearted. Aibileen manages, somehow, to look past all the crap she has to put up with on a daily basis, and focus on the stuff that really matters to her, like raising Mae Mobley.
And Octavia Spencer is just perfect as Minny--Aibileen's best friend, the most gifted cook in all of Jackson and the bane of Hilly Holbrook's existence. I couldn't even imagine them casting anyone else in the role. Her speech, her mannerisms were spot on Milly. She had me laughing and shaking my head and gasping out loud, even when I knew what was coming. I can't even think of the "terrible awful" scene without picturing Octavia Spencer now.
Davis and Spencer's chemistry comes across on the screen, too. You really could see them being friends.
In fact, the whole cast was magnificent:
As haughty, hypocritical, holier-than-thou Hilly Holbrook Bryce Dallas Howard is the character you love to hate, intent on her personal crusade of racist fascism;
Old 'Missus' Walters (Sissy Spacek), Hilly's Mom, may be losing her memory, but not her sense of humor. I loved watching her gleefully gloating at Hilly's expense;
Jessica Chastain plays "White Trash" Celia Foote. Pretty, silly Celia, longing for children and desperate for acceptance, doesn't have a prejudiced bone in her body, and Chastain plays her with a charming naivete'. I really liked her in this role.
Skeeter's Mom (Allison Janney), is flawed and frail and human (but with a hidden core of steel when Skeeter needs her most, like most mothers). Wow. I would never have pegged Janney for this part after watching her in the West Wing. SUCH a talented actress;
And Cicely Tyson's brief appearance as sweet, faithful Constantine was enough to bring me to tears.
The story is essentially the same: set in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s, The Help centers around the plight of 'colored' maids working in the homes of rich white society ladies, forbidden even from using the bathrooms in the very houses they are responsible for cleaning.
Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan riles up polite society when, in a scheme she's hoping will land her a real job as a newspaper reporter in New York city, she publishes a book told from the perspective of the maids, exposing all the faults and foibles of their employers.
The Help does differ slightly from the book. A couple plot points were changed, and I actually liked the way one was handled in the book better, though I understand why it was changed (the movie version cast the sympathetic characters in a better light).
But overall the movie captivated me. Little touches of humor and moments of surprising warmth added to an already compelling story.
And I want to make it clear that Skeeter is not a white woman "rescuing" the black women here. All she does is offer them the vehicle to get their own message out to the public, something that they could never have done at this volatile time of race relations. The movie does a great job showing both the strength of the women telling their 'stories' and the sheltered life Skeeter has led. She is the one, going in, who doesn't realize how dangerous this could be for all of them. She rises to the occasion, but it is "The Help" who are really courageous here.
Go see it. Tomorrow, if you can.
And you might want to bring your tissues.
(And enter The Help giveaway already! It ends Friday!)
I attended a complementary premiere screening of DreamWorks movie, The Help, to facilitate this review. I also received a bag of movie favors at the screening (canister of tea, a pocket mirror, a cardboard fan and some literature on the film).