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Faithful to the Bestseller, ‘The Help’ Is a Message Movie With Sass — and Class

Review: It’s a meta-movie — its subject is the power of story-telling even as it tells terrific stories of its own

“The Help” needs no help from movie critics to lure the millions who’ve already read and loved the 2009 bestselling novel upon which it is based.

For those who haven’t read the book and are wondering whether to see the film let me help you: Go.

“The Help” is that rare thing, an enjoyable message movie. The message: Times have changed, and thank God for that.

“The Help” tells the story of a group of women, black and white, in a Mississippi town in the early 1960s. The white women are mostly young society matrons, whose days are filled with playing cards, charity work and gossip.

The black women are their maids, the so-called “help.” While raising the children, cooking meals and cleaning for the white women, these black women suffer countless indignities — having to use a special designated bathroom, no matter how inconvenient — on a daily basis.

John F. Kennedy may be in the White House and the civil rights movement under way, but in this Mississippi town, things are still the way they’ve always been and many reckon always will be, whether they like it (the white women) or not (the black domestics).

That is until Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent graduate of the University of Mississippi and aspiring writer, returns home and starts talking to the maids. Hearing their stories, plus encouragement from a New York City book editor (Mary Steenburgen), inspires Skeeter to begin scribbling away on a tome that has the potential to turn the town on its ear.

“The Help” is a meta-movie; its subject is the power of story-telling even as it tells terrific stories of its own. These tales, both from the past and the movie’s present, are appalling, affecting, funny, fascinating and, always, entertaining.

Building on the strong foundation provided by author Kathryn Stockett’s novel, director-screenwriter Tate Taylor (whose only previous feature was the barely-released 2008 comedy “Pretty Ugly People”) creates a strong sense of time and place and populates it with memorable characters.

Taylor is exceedingly faithful to Stockett’s novel, possibly too faithful. At 137 minutes, “The Help” feels a touch long, though that’s a minor quibble.

Grabbing at the chance here to play vivid roles, the skilled cast digs in with relish. It’s not an overstatement to say that the Oscar race, at least for supporting actress (this is very much an ensemble film), kicks off with “The Help.”

Top honors go to the always redoubtable Viola Davis, who movingly plays Aibileen, the first maid willing to share her experiences with Skeeter. Also making strong impressions are Octavia Spencer, who’s hilarious as Minny, a maid who knows revenge is a dish best served baked, and Jessica Chastain as Celia, a new bride from the wrong side of the tracks who longs to join the town’s social elite.

Additionally, there sprightly turns by Sissy Spacek as a widow who’s a lot sharper than her bossy daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard) believes her to be, and Allison Janney as Skeeter’s disapproving mother.

It may still be summer, but “The Help,” a quality film that has class but also plenty of sass, feels like a fall movie. And that’s a good thing.