At the moment, Oscar prognosticators all over the web and in print are scrambling around, looking for the “one.” Some are predicting good things for best picture hopefuls like War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which haven’t even been released to date. Yet, if they peered a little deeper into the current spate of movie releases, they may very well see a contender to rule them all. The film in question is The Help, a terrific blend of comedy and drama. I predict this one will go very far on Oscar night.
The story may sound slight upon first examination, yet the execution (particularly in terms of acting) raises the cinematic bar to a whole new high. It concerns coloured maids and the people they work for. Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) see to the general cleanliness and maintenance of the households in which they work. Far from being a guide on how to keep your home clean, the makers of The Help have other things on their mind. When journalist Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) sees first-hand the racial discrimination directed at the coloured help, she takes the very bold step of asking Aibileen if she can write a book from her perspective. Initially reluctant, Aibileen agrees. This story comprises only a section of the whole as writer/director Tate Taylor focuses on the domestic drama involving Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) and how she struggles to belong in a society that doesn’t want her.
The mark of a great film can be determined by a worthwhile script. However, in The Help, there’s one tremendous performance after another -- beginning with Emma Stone. The empathy she feels for the maids around her goes back to a fond childhood memory, in which Constantine (Cicely Tyson) became a sort of mother figure. With this person absent, Stone’s character reaches out to workers like those personified by Davis and Spencer. It’s quite possibly the first great performance from Stone. Another highlight occurs with Viola Davis, who definitely has her Oscar moment with pathos to spare. Jessica Chastain seems to be having a whale of a time, appearing in The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and now The Help. She’s a revelation as the kind-hearted lady who dreams of having a family of her own. Of all the actresses in the film, I enjoyed her work the most. Then there’s Octavia Spencer -- mischievous, humorous and a good soul. She comes mightily close to a scene-stealing turn as the maid who doesn’t stand for any nonsense, especially from her employers. I see great things in her future too.
My only complaint is with the music. Quite frankly, Thomas Newman’s score doesn’t enhance the movie. In fact, the opposite seems true -- it distracts from the sublime acting that distinguishes The Help.
Overall, we can expect Oscar nominations for Best Picture (2011), Director, Actress (Emma Stone, Viola Davis), Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer) and Adapted Screenplay. Oh, and Hughes Winborne deserves a nod for film editing. His work here outshines Crash (2004), for which he received an Academy Award.
(Released by DreamWorks Studios and rated “PG-13” for thematic material.)