A face can make a movie work. As a black maid employed by a white family in Mississippi in 1963, Viola Davis has such a quietly intense face that it says all that needs to be said in "The Help."
Having grown up under Jim Crow laws, this maid named Aibileen suppresses her bitter feelings beneath a subservient smile. America may be entering an era of civil rights reforms, but she's living much as her slave grandmother did. When Aibileen does speak, her words are so carefully measured that you realize she is mentally calculating how to get through yet another day on the job with a measure of dignity intact.
Viola Davis brings such nuanced facial expressions and line readings to her role that she compellingly holds together a movie that otherwise tends to be much broader and more obvious in its approach to the history of the civil rights movement.
Based on a best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, this adaptation by writer-director Tate Taylor is always entertaining and often quite moving. If anything, the movie has so many comic and otherwise life-affirming moments that its cinematic uplift tends to smooth over both rougher and more subtle aspects of this historical episode. Likewise, some of the amusingly lively supporting performances are aimed at the stadium seating rafters.
The movie is at its best when it shows the daily indignity to which Aibileen is subjected by her self-absorbed employer, Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly), who cares more about her bridge club friends than about her baby daughter. Aibileen passively does as she's told, but her eyes notice everything.
Somebody within this community who starts to notice such things is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who has returned to the Jackson home she shares with her sick mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney). Skeeter takes a job writing a domestic advice column for the local newspaper, but she aspires to do more ambitious writing.
When Skeeter wonders about the recent absence of her own family's longtime maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), her mother is evasive about the topic. This gets Skeeter to wondering about maids in general.
Skeeter talks privately with Aibileen and prompts her to talk about her life as a maid. Aibileen's friend and fellow maid, the outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer), provides blistering recollections of her own. Secretly transcribing their remarks and putting them into manuscript form, Skeeter hopes to sell this oral history account to a New York publisher, Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen), who realizes that this book would personalize the civil rights-themed headlines of the day.
Of course, Skeeter and these two maids know that their writing project could get all of them into trouble within a Jackson community in which people are expected to remain within tightly defined social roles. Simply being a genuine friend to the maids would be enough to make Skeeter a social outcast.
From its whispered conversations in the kitchen to its chatty charity ball events, "The Help" has a nice sense of the everyday flow of life for black and white women. Although it's too bad that the script insistently telegraphs its civil rights message, that thematic bluntness is softened a bit by these deliberately paced domestic scenes.
The story's male characters don't receive as much screen time — or fare as well in terms of characterization. Skeeter goes on a disastrous blind date with Stuart (Chris Lowell), for instance, in which her progressve beliefs clash with his traditional ones.
Stuart reappears later in the movie as her boyfriend and he's so much nicer that he seems to have had a personality transplant. The choppy editing where this story strand is concerned makes it seem like the evolution of their romantic relationship ended up on the cutting-room floor.
There are so many supporting characters and story strands in "The Help" that even its generous 137-minute running time seems unable to do justice to them all. Several of the roles are underwritten, which may partly explain why these actors pull out all stops to make a fast and funny impression.
Fortunately, there are some really savvy performances within the unruly mix. Jessica Chastain tugs at your heart as Celia, a voluptuous blond who is ostracized by the prim and proper bridge players; and Sissy Spacek makes the most of her small role as the elderly Missus Walters, whose senility hasn't dampened her sharp powers of observation. And, of course, Viola Davis' portrayal of a maid is likely to be remembered by Academy Awards voters. Grade: B