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The Help premieres; opens Aug. 10

August 4, 2011

OXFORD TOWN — While there are numerous reasons I could tell you to see “The Help,” such as supporting Mississippi film and filmmakers, supporting Ole Miss alums, the fact the lead of the film plays an Ole Miss graduate, the beautiful story, well-paced and well-shot film, and oh, the acting — there is one that has touched me even more: Civil rights icon and UM graduate James Meredith’s reaction after the premiere.

Meredith attended the Mississippi premiere on July 30 in Madison Malco Grandview along with hundreds of fans out to see the celebrities. After the screening, Governor Haley Barbour held a small reception for the filmmakers and special guests. It was there Meredith chatted openly about his own experiences during that time and how, despite what he went through, “The Help” gave him a new perspective that he did not perviously have. Meredith said that he learned something about Mississippi watching it (and reading the book) because he didn’t know the help and didn’t know those who hired the help. He was impressed that Stockett apologizes at the end of the book in case she got it wrong and was touched by the film.

Kathryn Stockett’s novel, originally planned for a small publishing run as she was told that she probably wouldn’t sell very many books, became the New York Times bestseller and a national sensation.

But, in the tradition of Mississippi, the rights to her book went to childhood friend Taylor rather than selling them to a Hollywood studio. Taylor, a native, knew the story had to be told right and had to be told at home.

Producer Brunson Green, also of Mississippi, took the script to Dreamworks and the rest is history with Christopher Columbus coming on board, bringing the film to Greenwood, and helping change the face of the state film industry. But it wasn’t a simple road, with Green and Taylor fighting all the way to keep the film in the state with the studio wanting to move it to Louisiana.

But they won the battle and, because of that, the film has an authenticity to it that can’t be matched.

In case you didn’t read the book, the story revolves around three main women, Skeeter (Emma Stone), Minny (Octavia Spencer) and Abilene (Viola Davis). Also key to the story is Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), Charlotte Phelan (Allison Janney), Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek), Stuart Whitworth (Chris Lowell) and Cicely Tyson as Constantine Jefferson, the maid that serves as the catalyst for the story.

Skeeter graduates from Ole Miss and comes home to Jackson in the late 60s, right before the Civil Rights movement hits the town. She discovers that Junior Auxilary and finding a man is not all it is cracked up to be and her dreams of becoming a real writer lead her to ask questions no one else is asking. At the same time, Minny and Abilene are fed up and beginning to question their treatment as “the help.” The three woman meet in the dark of the night and bravely begin to tell the stories that no one talks about. The story is as much about the eye opening experience for women like Skeeter to the injustices around them as it is finding a woman’s strong voice for Abilene. While Taylor remains true to the heart of the book, there are some improvements to the end of the story for simplicity sake that I felt made the movie stand on its own two legs.

Most important to the film is the acting. I can not beat you over the head enough with just how strong a performance Taylor gets out of all of his actresses and the few actors mixed in. Specifically, Viola Davis who consistently churns out brilliant performances ranging from “Doubt” to “United States of Tara” is at her best in this. Her character is one of the most likeable, anyways, but Davis’ magnetism makes it impossible to peel your eyes away from her when she is on the screen. One of the easiest ways to do that is when Octavia Spencer is there with her. Spencer, who has been in all of Taylor’s films and got her start in the business with Taylor as a PA on “A Time to Kill,” is known for her comedic timing and sassy personality, but it is her quieter moments when she is beaten down, fearful that her character comes to life in a way that is so much more than even what Stockett or Taylor could have intended.

Stone also impressed me as Skeeter, with her bravery and willingess to be different — a role that is familar for Stone with such films as “Easy A.”

Of course Janney and Spacek are complete scene stealers whenever they are on the screen with their outstanding performances. Spacek brings a lightheartedness to the story that is a great example of Mississippi characters. Janney, playing a woman with cancer and struggling to handle a daughter that seeks to be different, ends up delivering one of the most compelling lines of the film in the third act. Janney spoke at the Governor’s mansion about the difficulty in delivering such a weighty line but if you see the film, you will know just how well she pulled it off.

But my favorite discovery was Jessica Chastain. I recently learned of Chastain in “The Tree of Life” but didn’t put together that was who was playing Celia Foote in “The Help” until recently. Chastain is a beautiful red head that is soft spoken and when I complimented her, asked to make sure I didn’t think she was Bryce Dallas Howard since most mistake them. But on screen, she is a white trash princess and she owns the screen. Foote was not my favorite character in the book but Chastain brings a vivacity and heart to the character that I didn’t know could be within the role. The film world is lucky to have this one.

My first experience with director Tate Taylor’s work was with the Oxford Film Festival. We had screened his short film, “Chicken Party” and later his first feature “Pretty Ugly People.” The one thing I knew about the Ole Miss alum was that he knew a way to blend drama and comedy and his group of friends, Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer and others, worked with his directing style to create fantastic little gems. “The Help” proves no exception.

—Full disclosure: I have previously programmed Taylor’s films for the Oxford Film Festival and read and provided feedback for early drafts of the script for “The Help.”

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2011 12:13 pm

    I’ve been hearing a lot about this film recently but it looks like I have some time to wait before it comes out here in the UK. Very interesting review anyway, I’ll make sure I catch it when it does.

  2. August 21, 2011 12:20 pm

    I read the book and loved it. I “cannot” wait to see the movie.

  3. August 21, 2011 12:19 pm

    Read the book and loved it. I “cannot”
    wait to see the movie.

  4. Kay Bates permalink
    August 11, 2011 9:46 pm

    Honey, cannot is one word.

  5. rebecca permalink
    August 10, 2011 9:11 am

    can’t wait! great review Mel.

  6. August 5, 2011 1:17 pm

    I can’t wait to see it!

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