Who's In It: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain
The Basics: It's the early 1960s in Mississippi and a young white college grad (Stone) enlists the help of local maids to create a book of true stories from the perspective of "the help." Naturally, the process itself is forbidden and the outcomes range from heartbreaking to adorably scandalous, but it's nothing that a helping of down-home comedy-revenge against the meanest of the white ladies can't fix. Luckily for the movie, Viola Davis is around to keep it weighted firmly on the ground when it threatens to float off into a revisionist fantasyland. More about her in a minute.
What's The Deal: The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is now about 50 years old, which means that even middle-aged people like me weren't born yet when it picked up steam. Equally important to remember is the fact that we live in a culture where softer versions of reality, presented to us through historical fiction, often win out as collective public memory. In other words, go to YouTube and find actual news footage from the time, actual interviews with everyday Southern racists--not KKK members either, just regular terrifying white people who thought God wanted them to keep people of color "in line." It'll help you understand that the only way a story like this can exist and deliver the happy ending you want is for it to twist itself into a pretzel of impossibility. Otherwise it'd be a documentary about a doomed book project where everyone involved got murdered by their fellow townspeople or, if they were lucky, simply run out of town.
What Else Is Wrong With It: Director Tate Taylor, close friend of the novel's author Kathryn Stockett, took over this project and turned it into a giant gesture of love for both the book and his friend. But directing with affection isn't the same as directing with skill. The action drags on for 140 meandering minutes in what must be an attempt to mimic the molasses slowness of Southern life. Meanwhile, there's not a human response that isn't framed as either an "awwww" moment of lady-bonding, a you-go-girl punchline or a begin-weeping-right-NOW command. So that's pretty exhausting.
Who Saves It From Drowning: Viola Davis, a woman whose secret middle name must be "Gravitas," because she moves through this movie like she invented the idea. Any criticism of the story as another example of a white savior coming along to create equality is mitigated by her presence. She's portrayed as a collaborator instead of a victim, which is smart of the movie since the entire Civil Rights Movement was created, planned and executed by black people (whites were the actual "help" in that scenario). It's also good to see cool character actress Octavia Spencer--she's more or less the female "Oh, hey it's That Guy--finally getting a lead role in a film. It's about time.
Wacky Side Performances: Bryce Dallas Howard gives the movie someone to hate as the iciest, cruelest, perfectest housewife you've ever seen, with Jessica Chastain's sweetly naive outsider as her counterpoint. And Sissy Spacek makes almost no sense at all as a cackling grandma whose allegiances are from somewhere out of time. But no matter--my mom is going to love every minute of it. Yours, too, probably.