BY NANCY R. MANDELL
In the mood for a good read? Then put down the book and line up for the film version of “The Help,” Katherine Stockett’s best-selling novel about domestic relations in the pre-Civil Rights South.
Whenever a best-seller becomes a movie, the same quandary arises: If you haven’t read the book, you wonder if you should before you see the film. And if you have read it, you’re probably criticizing the virtually all-female cast in advance.
Fortunately for “The Help,” which opens in wide release today (Aug.10), no such problems should crop up. First-time author Stockett and Tate Taylor—executive producer, director, and screenwriter—were childhood friends in Jackson, Miss. where the novel is set, and shared the angst of Stockett’s publishing efforts. Reportedly, Taylor read the manuscript even while it was being rejected by more than 60 literary agents and told Stockett not to give up. With just one short and one feature to his credit, he assured her that, “If it doesn’t get published, I’ll make it into a movie.”
Well, the novel was published and Taylor, along with producer Brunson Green—another member of their mini-Mississippi mafia—has fashioned a film that should please readers and non-readers alike. Even those who choose to carp over details will have to admit that the exceptional casting enriches the spirit of the source.
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The film stars the unconventionally pretty Emma Stone, a newcomer praised in so many recent releases (“Easy A,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Friends With Benefits” to name a few) that she has already landed on the cover of Vanity Fair. “Skeeter” Phelan is an Ole Miss grad and aspiring “serious” writer who decides that what her hometown—and the public in general—needs, is a look at life from the perspective of the housemaids and cooks who toil in the homes of the wealthy white residents of Jackson, circa1963. (Nearby Greenwood, Miss. a town that managed to retain its sixties’ aura, stands in effectively for the filmmakers’ hometown.)
Stone has just the right spunky individuality to portray Skeeter, whose determination to write a book about “The Help” is as discouraged by her well-married high school girlfriends as it is at first, from the black women she needs to interview. This is, after all, an era when Mississippi actually issued pamphlets outlining the laws of conduct between blacks and whites. And the multi-racial sisterhood Skeeter creates is actually illegal.
Skeeter’s breakthrough comes when she asks Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who works for one of those friends, what it feels like to raise someone else’s children while your own are left in the care of others. In fact, Aibileen has raised 17 white children over the course of her life, and lost her only son in a freak accident. Once Aibileen opens up, it’s not long before others join in. Davis, who won a Tony last year for her role in “Fences,” gives Aibileen the dignity and humility to express the conflicting emotions involved in mothering children whose own mothers are too busy playing “mommy” to comprehend their insufficient parenting.