First stills from The Help, Dreamworks promising adaptation of one of last year’s most significant literary events. Kathryn Stockett’s novel chronicling small town America in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement rose to top bestseller charts and capped off its popular success with appearances on many year-end best lists. Observing the turbulent ’60’s alternately through the eyes of naive Southern ingenues and the maids who cooked and cleaned for them, the book navigated touchy territory with impressive finesse and generous sensitivity.
(EW) What women Stockett has conjured up. In a shrewd move, one of her characters is like the author’s ’60s-era doppelg√§nger. Skeeter, a white Ole Miss graduate whose mother frets over her daughter’s frizzy hair and ringless wedding finger, wants to write something with more substance than her piddly housecleaning-advice column ‚Ä®at the Jackson Journal. Buoyed by a chance conversation with a steely New York book editor, she decides to ‚Ä®anonymously record the experiences of black maids, paid to raise and nurture other people’s children while ‚Ä®their employers insist they use a separate bathroom ‚Äî preferably one outside the house. ”Everyone knows ‚Ä® how we white people feel [about] the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family,” Skeeter tells her editor. ”But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it.”
If Skeeter is one to root for, the muscle and heart of the book belong to the maids Aibileen and Minny, tough, funny, vulnerable, conflicted women who know they are risking everything by sharing their stories with a skinny, naive white woman. Stockett jumps effortlessly between her women’s voices. She has created a world ‚Ä®of memorable supporting characters ‚Äî from the bitch ‚Ä®in the Junior League to Skeeter’s oilman suitor ‚Äî to‚Ä® surround them.
In some ways a US variation of Upstairs, Downstairs, The Help avoids most of the Front Door, Back Door pitfalls you might expect on its way to becoming a graceful exploration of the evolving attitudes of its fascinating female characters. The most puzzling unknown in the film’s equation is director Tate Taylor, but we have to assume his own adapted screenplay was convincing evidence for handling such prestige material. He’ll be well-supported behind the camera with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Steven Goldblatt and Oscar-winning editor Hughes Winborne (Crash). Look for costumes to be outstanding as designed by two-time nominee Sharen Davis (Dreamgirls, Ray), a proven maven of this era.
Starring Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Chastain, Celia Foote, and Viola Davis. (Speculative short-list for Best Actress & Best Supporting Actress?) Dreamworks’ official synopsis :
Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, ‚ÄúThe Help‚Äù stars Emma Stone (star of the breakout hit, ‚ÄúZombieland‚Äù) as Skeeter, a southern society girl who returns from college determined to become a writer, but turns her friends‚Äô lives‚Äîand a small Mississippi town‚Äîupside down when she decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent southern families. Academy Award¬Æ nominee Viola Davis (‚ÄúEat Pray Love‚Äù) stars as Aibileen, Skeeter‚Äôs best friend‚Äôs housekeeper, who is the first to open up‚Äîto the dismay of her friends in the tight-knit black community. Despite Skeeter‚Äôs life-long friendships hanging in the balance, she and Aibileen continue their collaboration and soon more women come forward to tell their stories‚Äîand as it turns out, they have a lot to say. Along the way, unlikely friendships are forged and a new sisterhood emerges, but not before everyone in town has a thing or two to say themselves when they become unwittingly‚Äîand unwillingly‚Äîcaught up in the changing times.