Best Picture Profile: The Help

help

Directed by: Tate Taylor
Written by: Tate Taylor
Produced by: Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, Brunson Greem
Runtime: 146 minutes

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The Help is about Skeeter Phelan, a young white woman who starts her career as a writer of a housekeeping tips column in a local newspaper. Because her beloved maid left their house when she was gone, she was forced to ask pieces of advice from the maid of a friend, Aibileen Clark. Also present in the story is Minny Jackson, a strong-headed maid that ended up getting fired by another friend of Skeeter. These three women collaborate to write an unorthodox novel that documents the different stories of the help in the town of Jackson, Mississippi.

Looking back at the year the film is released, it was nowhere near the buzz of getting a Best Picture nomination. Hype for the actresses, particularly Viola Davis gained the film a momentum for itself in the Best Picture race. And looking through that, it’s no wonder why this happened – the performances are what make the film work.

The execution itself is quite apt for the material, though there is actually potential for it to go deeper. It tends to just scan over the issues embedded in the material, particularly its treatment of the racial discrimination in the film. It did confine itself in comfortable zone, and the result is something that does not give any new insight to the topic. To be fair, it is the kind of treatment suited to the material. The film does not divulge into darker territory due to the film being a mainstream product, and with that, the material maximizes the emotional content to make up for the lack of courage in going into newer territory in discussing the topic.

The cinematography gets to do a subtle appropriation of colors in the scenes, carefully constructing a milieu that is both bygone and at the same time clear and warm. The film is also composed of scenes that are moving in a pace enough to give the film space and time to breathe in the emotions of the actors. Worth mentioning also is the production design of the film, sprinkling the film with clever distinction of the characters through its set and costumes. To complete the circle is a tender musical score that delicately sets up the humor and the sadness of the characters through its adroit balance of the two. There is also the original theme song “The Living Proof” that plays at the ending of the film, giving it a meditative tone of melancholy and hope.

help

But just like the buzz the film had in the entire awards season, the film is all about its stellar cast. From Cicely Tyson’s brief but heartbreaking role as the dedicated maid to Sissy Spacek’s humorous yet biting take on a lady sent to the nursing ward, the supporting cast holds up to the strong ensemble. She has garnered few notices, but I admire Bryce Dallas Howard for her openly despicable role as the racist antagonist of the story; same with Allison Janney in a sensitive performance as the initially dismissive but ultimately loving mother of Skeeter. Emma Stone does fine as the eager Skeeter Phelan, displaying a steely determination with such grace and intelligence.

Octavia Spencer swept most of the awards for supporting actress category in her year, and deservedly so: she handles comedy very well the same way she manages to paint a tragic back story to her character. She utilizes her eyes to double effect: to project a strong point of humor and at that same, to register the sadness and helplessness her character encounters in the film.

But if I am going to choose the best supporting performance in the film, it will be Jessica Chastain in a mesmerizing performance as Celia Foote, a woman dislocated from the majority of the ladies in Jackson. With every unknowing smile covers uncertainty with her marriage life, housekeeping, and her future, and Chastain effortlessly manoeuvres the character’s quirks to get something authentic: it is a performance that digs deeper that what it is expected. She surprises with moments of biting honesty beneath the stereotype that she could have been.

Viola Davis gives a towering dramatic tour-de-force as Aibileen Clark. She is a sorrowful woman, and the whole body language speaks that. From her unassuming glances to the way she walks as if she is really a woman of many experiences, Davis finds the most profound truth in the story: something that is quite unshakable after you watch the film. It never becomes one-note, as she constantly provides a soulful approach to the character, never veering away from the reality of the character. Her build-up of the character is definitely noteworthy, and when she breaks down, it is all real. The genuineness of the sadness, the helplessness, the longsuffering she unleashes in the film is something so real that it gives the film something that is stunning to watch, something unexpected for a film like this. She is the heart of the film, and what remains after the credits is Davis’ Aibileen Clark, a creation that is full of emotional realness and rawness.

In comparison to War Horse, I am also finding it hard to spot anything remarkable in the film aside from the ensemble cast. It is unashamedly a product of the mainstream, so it does stay in the safe zone, refusing to do anything risky and brave. But to take it for what it is, this film offers a relaxed film watching experience with some really powerful moments, thanks again to its cast.

For this, the film gets:

 4

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