Who's In It: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O'Reilly, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek
The Basics: Adapted from the book of the same name, The Help is a movie with a conscience and a message that it doesn't let you forget. Skeeter (Stone) is a young writer who sees the tides turning around her in 1960s Mississippi, and decides to do something completely off the wall. She decides to treat the black women who have been working for their families like people. Not a revolutionary idea today, in a time when our President doesn't resemble a loaf of Wonder Bread, but back then…we all know how scandalous a thought that could have been to people. With the help of courageous and compassionate caretakers Aibileen (Davis) and Minnie (Spencer), Skeeter begins translating the sordid details of their experiences into a book.
What's The Deal: I am a fan of the book, and was concerned that the film adaptation of this would be a melodramatic, Oscar bait overload. These kinds of projects rarely have a believable tone, and even the book teetered on that tightrope. The message is about cherishing the humanity of all beings, but of course race is such a thorny issue that it makes the cinematic bulls-eye shrink down to an almost-impossible hit. There's good news here: the performances in this movie are so spectacular that it made my analytical eye fill with tears for the triumphs and sorrows of the people on the screen. For me, anything else is immaterial, because although the film was imperfect, the emotional impact I experienced was impressive.
The Veterans: This ensemble blends heavyweights with newcomers that made the movie feel grounded with a fresh energy. Sissy Spacek plays the villain Hilly Holbrook's (Howard's) mother. As is expected, her few moments on screen were always delightful, and I found myself wondering how such a firecracker could have given birth to such a repulsive, misguided human being like her daughter. Then I remembered they're not real people--but that's the kind of head space this movie put me in. Viola Davis has always seemed like a pillar of strength in any project she appears in, but here, she was riveting. Her acting reminded me that the craft, like Morgan Freeman says, is mostly a talent for listening. Her grace and courage brought this character to life better than I had ever imagined.
The Young Blood: Emma Stone is quickly becoming one of my favorite performers, and as usual, she hits all the right notes in this movie. Catching my attention in more ways than one is Jessica Chastain as the outcast Celia Foote. Since I only know her from this year's Tree of Life, I found her almost unrecognizable here as a completely different character (and yes, it's becoming a delightful surprise when actors are actually acting these days). Paired with the sass and passion of Octavia Spencer, the two made me wish they had more scenes together. By the way, if you haven't seen Spencer in any number of projects like Dinner for Schmucks, Halloween II, or Ugly Betty, you're missing out. She's a chameleon and can act most performers under the table.
Sniffles, Chortles and Screams, Oh My: Admittedly, the film could be seen like an unrealistic fairy tale where everything works out in the end, but when in doubt, I listen to those around me. Whether it was the lady giving her hankie a workout in the seat next to me, or the group behind me oohing and aahing at Skeeter's new hairdo, this movie had the audience in its clutches. I also sat through the credits just to hear Mary J. Blige's song that she wrote specifically for the film as I clung to the last wisps of the images I had just seen. I even clapped when it was over.