The Help's story is, on the surface, patronizing. Just out of Ole Miss in 1962 is struggling writer Skeeter (Emma Stone), who seeks oral histories from the black maids who keep white households running in Jackson, Miss. Times are politically volatile; we know this because the filmmakers put Bob Dylan on the soundtrack and Medgar Evers on TV. Still, Skeeter presses her friend's servant, Aibileen, to talk. As that maid who first tells her story, Viola Davis helps set off scandal when Skeeter's research is released.
As Minny, cuddly yet furious Octavia Spencer revamps another archetype of the bulky, shrewd black maid, reminding viewers how much audiences used to enjoy that kind of comedy in 1940s film. As the employer of Minny, Jessica Chastain also shines as a curvy, good-hearted white-trash refugee from Sugar Ditch. (That tragic real-life town's name reinforces the story's metaphor of raw sewage as a symbol for stinking, half-buried racism.)
Sissy Spacek has a small but key role as the slightly senile mother of the hateful club woman Hilly, and playing this snobby villainess given just desserts, Bryce Dallas Howard gives her first really forceful performance. The bestselling novel's notorious "terrible and awful" incident, a surefire bit ever since Titus Andronicus, is essential to the film's hit-making status. Spacek's reaction shots give even the straightlaced permission to laugh.
Decked out in rebellious curls, the liquid-eyed Stone builds what's going to be deserved stardom with a variation on her character in the spirited Easy A. Confident actor-turned-director Tate Taylor handles this cast in "What would George Cukor do?"-style. The art direction, photography and musical selections (except for the Dylan needle-drop) are all first-rate, even if the accents are shaky. Of the white cast, only Spacek really has it right. To hear her pronounce the word "Biloxi" is enough to make one actually nostalgic for the South.
'The Help' opens in wide release this week.