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The Help

The Help has certainly received a lot of Oscar buzz, more than I think it deserves honestly. While this film is entertaining, and does feature some strong performances, it left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Although well meaning, The Help is of course tailored to a Hollywood, predominately white audience, and as such, ignores many key factors in racial oppression, and seems to act as an exoneration of viewers’ collective “white guilt”.

The story is framed against the growing civil rights movement of the 1960’s and focuses on both Aibileen (Viola Davis), a black maid, and Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississipi. Skeeter is aggravated by how her former friends treat their hired help and decides to write a book that would tell the maids’ perspective of the racism they experience on the job. Although she receives quite a lot of resistance to the idea initially, Aibileen agrees and allows Skeeter to interview her about her work and what it is like rising white children who inevitably grow into women who are just as bigoted as their mothers. As the film progresses we are witness to some of the indignities faced by the hired help at the hands of their employers. This film is quite lengthy, and attempts to cover an extended period of time, from Skeeter’s book’s conception to its publication. Although the story has its moments, the pacing is not always the best and skips over what I thought were important relationship developments.

The standout performance in The Help is from Viola Davis, who is powerful as Aibileen and equips the character with an emotional intensity that boils below the surface of her quiet and well mannered appearance. Octavia Spencer is also quite good as Minny, Aibileen’s bold friend and fellow maid. While both of these women have received Oscar nominations, it is unfortunate that the roles they are being honoured for are stereotypical Mammy characters. Although they bring life to these characters, the writing in The Help does little to add much depth to these roles outside of their usual cinematic portrayal. Speaking of Oscar nominations, Jessica Chastain also managed to get one for her role as Celia Foote, and while Chastain is absolutely adorable in this film, it is hardly a substantial role. It is interesting that with the volume of strong perfomances she has turned in this year (ie. The Tree of Life, Take Shelter), it is interesting that this one would be highlighted.

As I have mentioned above, although the film is entertaining and very audience friendly, it has some major flaws that I found troublesome. The film’s cast is nearly all female and I found the lack of a male presence to be curious. Racism is displayed as an expression of mean spirited attitudes and actions housewives enacted against their hired help, effectively ignoring the threat of rape and abuse male employers represented. I believe that it is telling that we see Minnie suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her black male partner, while the maids generally are shown to have little to no contact with white male homeowners. Furthermore, The Help, like oh so many Hollywood features about race relations, gives its white protagonist nearly all the power and portrays her as a saviour.  Audiences are convinced that without Skeeter’s actions, the maids situation never would have improved. The film strips away any notion that these characters had the ability and strength to emancipate themselves using their own resources.

The Help makes for some enjoyable light entertainment, but it should be viewed with a grain of salt.

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50/50

50/50 is an emotional and occassionally funny story that examines a young man coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis. This is a tale everyone can relate to on some level, as I doubt there are not many people who have not been affected by this disease in some meaningful way. The story introduces us to Adam, a bright and driven employee of NPR in Seattle, who, early in the film is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer with a frightening 50% survival rate. We watch as Adam endures emotionally confusing times and shows difficulty accepting his disease, after all, how could this happen to someone like him “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink…I recycle!” he exclaims dismayed. The story is based on the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, who was encouraged by his friend, Seth Rogan, to write the script after enduring cancer in his early 20’s. Seth Rogan, who co-stars in the film, essentially plays himself (he helped support Reiser through his illness), and is at the top of his game as Kyle, Adam’s supportive yet exasperating best friend. Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in yet another great performance as Adam, bringing emotional clarity to the role. It’s honestly impossible for me not to fall in love with Gordon-Levitt in each of his films, and his performance sweeps me off my feet again. We also see strong supporting roles turned in by Angelica Huston, who plays Adam’s over-protective, yet emotionally tough mother, and Anna Kendrick, as Adam’s therapist.

Reiser’s screenplay is excellent for the majority of the film, and walks the fine line between hope and despair. While we see Adam going through difficult moments, the film never digs too deep into the physical horrors of the disease and treatment. Instead it focuses on Adam’s mental state and his relationships with his friends and family. Although there are many engaging personal confrontations in the film, Adam’s interactions with his less than loyal girlfriend (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) feel a little too rushed. The issues involved on each side for this couple are undoubtedly complex and I felt as though their scenes were brushed aside. While the audience sides with Adam, we lose much of Rachel’s perspective, although there is a fleeting attempt to convey it. While not defending her characters actions, it would have served the story well to gain a perspective on the stress debilitating sicknesses can have not only on those diagnosed, but others in their supportive network.

Despite a few drawbacks, this is an excellent film, with very strong performances and superb writing. I highly recommend 🙂

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