The civil rights melodrama The Help is based on Kathryn Stockett's popular novel of the same name. The story takes place in 1963 Jackson, MS, where Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is a middle-aged black maid who recently lost her only son. From the opening moments of the film she explains that she's raised 17 white children in her lifetime -- the irony being that these children grow up and eventually disregard those who truly raised them. Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) is a black maid whose outspokenness has given her a reputation for being a difficult employee, and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) is a young white woman who has recently moved back home after graduating from college, only to find that her beloved childhood maid is gone and her mother won't give her a straight answer about what happened.
Skeeter dreams of becoming a reporter and contacts Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen), a New York editor who isn't convinced of Skeeter's talent and instructs her to gain more experience before joining the big league. So Skeeter gets a job at the local newspaper writing a housecleaning column. But she sets her sights higher and pitches a book idea revolving around "the help" -- a collection of stories from a maid's perspective. She enlists Aibileen, who bravely agrees to tell her story to Skeeter, knowing that it could potentially put her life in danger. Skeeter's secret book project has fits and starts; the most challenging is a call for more maids to participate, and for Skeeter to tell the real story about her beloved nanny, Constantine (Cicely Tyson).
As in the novel, the villain of the film is the vicious Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who takes what almost seems like pleasure in seeing the help suffer. She leads a degrading "Home Help Sanitation Initiative," which requires Southern white homes to build what is essentially an outhouse for their help in order to maintain "sanitary" conditions. Much of the humor of the film comes from the give-and-take between Minny and Hilly, and when Skeeter's relationship with the maids becomes a little too familiar, Hilly, along with her circle of bridge-playing girlfriends, attempts to rein in her activism.
The performances are uniformly excellent, especially from Davis and Spencer, who are the soul of the film, bringing their characters a dignity and fullness far beyond the novel, while Emma Stone is winning and comforting as the cute yet fiercely determined Skeeter, whose untamable curly hair is an all too blatant sign of her rebellious nature. Still, despite writer/director Tate Taylor's intimate knowledge of the novel (he's close friends with Stockett), he has trouble maintaining focus and bounces from one character to the next without regard to the overall story. While the bulk of the narrative revolves around Skeeter, Aibileen, and the book, there are several side plots -- a brush with romance in which Skeeter dates a handsome oil industry comer (Chris Lowell) and the story of Yule Mae (Aunjanue Ellis), a maid working for Hilly, who is refused the small loan she needs to help send her sons to college and is later arrested upon suspicion of theft -- that seem to be haphazardly thrown in without any regard to pacing or continuity, which works well in a novel but is difficult to translate to film.
The supporting actors breathe life into the novel's characters, notably Allison Janney as Skeeter's socially timid mother, Sissy Spacek as Hilly's slightly addled mother, and Jessica Chastain as outsider Celia Foote, a bottle blond hated by Hilly's circle of friends. Overall, The Help is a poignant period piece that examines the unquestioned relationships of white socialites and their deferential black maids, and transforms an ugly period of American history into a hopeful future.