When a fellow reviewer at the screening of the new movie The Help tried to pass me some tissues before the film began, I wisecracked that I was going to be the one cold-hearted witch who didn't break down. I should have taken the tissues. The movie based on Kathryn Stockett's New York Times bestselling novel doesn't care if you're a jaded old movie reviewer or a tearjerking junkie when it hits you in the guts.
After all, the movie directed by Stockett's childhood friend Tate Taylor is a rare bird indeed. A Civil Rights story, it's funneled mainly through the eyes of the maids of Southern Mississippi. These black women are the main caregivers to the white children of Mississippi, but they're not even allowed to use the same bathroom as their charges.
It's friend Hilly's (a Bryce Dallas Howard far more evil than her turn as a vampire in Twilight) fear-mongering with fabricated facts on colored cleanliness issues and the subsequent building of a separate bathroom for another friend's maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis), that infuriates plucky (white) protagonist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone). One of the few members of the Jackson, Mississippi Junior League to come out of Ole Miss with more than an MRS. degree, Skeeter wants to be a "real" writer someday. And when a New York City editor (Mary Steenburgen) sees a spark of her old self in the young college grad from Mississippi with no experience but plenty of gumption, Skeeter realizes she needs a story to tell if she's ever going to get a real job in the biz. But that story isn't hers -- it's the story of Aibileen and her friends, the story of Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the maid who raised Skeeter only to disappear with no trace while she was off at college.
Suffering under the yoke of the Jim Crow laws, spilling their stories of life in the white houses is a risk for Aibileen and her sassy pal Minny (played brilliantly by Octavia Spencer, who Stockett says inspired her to create the character). It's the fear and sympathy for the characters that get you emotionally involved enough to bust out the tears, but the bursts of humor -- many of them thanks to Minny's big mouth -- temper the drama so you don't feel preached at.
The Help is a movie everyone should see because it tells an important story -- although the female-centric cast (men are truly an afterthought in this flick) may make it tough to get the guys' butts in the seats. The civil rights era is not that far in the past, and the children raised by these women are still walking, talking today. This is still a story of now.
I'm glad I saw it. I'm glad I cried. But it's the type of movie that you see once, maybe a second time to catch anything you might have missed, then store away in the back of your mind. Ironically, I have been telling everyone I know to see The Help, but I won't watch it again. I don't have to.
Do you have this movie on your list? It opens August 10, nationwide.
Disclosure: Disney covered my expenses to view a screening of The Help to facilitate this review. All opinions are my own.