In the "it's not what you know, it's who you know" department, consider this: Director/screenwriter Tate Taylor bought the movie rights to Kathryn Stockett's The Help in 2008, before the book was published and became a smash bestseller. Taylor and Stockett grew up together in Mississippi and have been close friends ever since. As a result, Taylor, a bit-part actor with exactly one feature directing job to his credit (a 2008 comedy about gastric bypass surgery called Pretty Ugly People), gets to put his name on one of the year's big Oscar-bait dramas.
And this is a problem, because The Help — whatever its charms in literary form — is not a subtle story. It is a tale in which noble, downtrodden African-Americans in the still-segregated South, along with their forward-thinking white allies, do low-key battle with oppressive, vindictive racists. It's a crowd-pleaser with just enough of a social conscience to provide the sense that it's somehow more worthy than airplane-reading cousins like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In the hands of a filmmaker still learning how to be a filmmaker, that's not exactly a recipe for greatness.
Taylor largely maintains the three-part narrative structure of Stockett's novel. Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is a veteran housekeeper in 1963 Jackson, Miss., raising the latest of the many white children for whom she has been a surrogate mother. She's approached by Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate and aspiring writer who wants to create an anonymous collection of first-person stories from black housekeepers about their experiences. And when Aibileen finally agrees, she recruits her best friend, fiery Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), to the project.
Finding a balance between the three lead characters is the biggest potential stumbling block for The Help as a film, and Taylor struggles with pulling it all together. He understands that Aibileen is the emotional center, and that Minny gets all the best lines, so it's not surprising that it feels as though their stories are more fully realized. But Skeeter gets somewhat lost here, an ugly duckling whose conflict between her emerging sense of social justice and her first romance with a well-connected young man (Chris Lowell) is dispatched in a matter of moments. While Stone still brings the sharp intelligence that has made her a breakout comedic star, it's startling to see a performer so charismatic rendered fairly ... boring.
Then again, perhaps she just shrinks in comparison to her two primary co-stars, both of whom are terrific. It's easy for a role like Aibileen to become little more than silently suffering dignity, but Davis grounds the character's frustration in the genuine love she pours into the children she raises. And while it's possible any number of actors could have had a blast with as lively a character as Minny, Spencer delivers much more than wisecracks by maintaining a trembling undercurrent of hostility in Minny's sharp retorts. Mix in strong supporting work by Jessica Chastain as Minny's flighty new employer, and there's a lot that keeps The Help from sinking into a mere collection of alternating tear-jerking and applause breaks.
But the film confronts the same basic drawback of the book: There's almost nothing about it that's genuinely thorny. That's most evident in the character of Hilly Holbrook, the town's debutante queen-bee, played by Bryce Dallas Howard with a sneer of superiority that, if she were male, would generally be accompanied by mustache-twirling. While the black characters in The Help are confronting the simple, painful realities of their world, the white world around them is rendered in cartoonish shades of villainy, parental neglect, and benign ineffectuality. The ostensible reason behind both Skeeter's project and Stockett's book, the complexity of the relationships between black housekeepers and the families they serve, folds underneath the appeal to viewers congratulating themselves for agreeing that institutional racism was very, very bad.
To Taylor's credit, he makes some smart changes in his adaptation — including a revelation about the health of Skeeter's mother (Allison Janney) — and hits his mass-appeal marks with aplomb. And it's probably fair to say that he has made the kind of movie that would satisfy both Stockett and the book's fans. That's also probably why a different guy might have made a better movie from The Help, specifically somebody who wouldn't have to tell his best friend what she did wrong.