A strong ensemble cast buoys The Help

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      Starring Emma Stone and Viola Davis. Rated PG.

      Although it pulls some punches and focuses too doggedly on a white protagonist, The Help makes you smell the stagnant air of institutionalized dread hanging over Mississippi—and the United States at large—in 1963, when the tiniest racial infractions could prove fatal for people on the dark side of the line. Beyond its obvious (and necessary) message-making, the film also boasts one of the strongest and best-used screen ensembles in recent memory.

      Nominal hero Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) has returned to Jackson like Johnny Cash, but not to get married in a fever. Unlike her spoiled-brat Junior League pals, she’s been to college and wants an actual career, in journalism. After landing a housekeeping-tips column at the local paper, Skeeter turns to one friend’s maid, Aibileen (the phenomenal Viola Davis) for under-the-counter advice. This mission is soon overtaken by awareness of the daily humiliations heaped upon The Help—the grandchildren of slaves, many of them. And a New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen) encourages her to gather oral histories “before this whole civil-rights thing blows over”.

      The nascent writer gets frank stories from Aibileen and some savvy comic relief from Minny (Octavia Spencer, in a career-making performance), who works for a honeyed villainess and, later, for trailer trash who has married into money. These arctic poles are played by porcelain-skinned women (Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain, respectively) who look remarkably similar. Writer-director Tate Taylor—a Jackson native like Kathryn Stockett, on whose bestseller this is based—has imbued The Help with a stunning physicality, from the detailed period art direction to the contagious rapport between the many female cast members. (Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Cicely Tyson also make memorable appearances.)

      Taylor should have ditched Skeeter’s needless romantic entanglement and thus trimmed that ungainly 146-minute length. And, given the subject matter, Thomas Newman’s generically Caucasoid score is a study in missed opportunities. But the film’s higher qualities easily override these small objections.

      Watch the trailer for The Help.