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Mean Girls vs. the Maids 

Civil rights through a soft focus lens in The Help

More than just the Hollywood "It" girl of the moment, Emma Stone is a real actress, and in The Help, she gets an ostentatious, Oscar-baiting Big Scene in which to prove it. Stone is, to borrow a phrase from Bret Easton Ellis' Twitter account, thoroughly post-empire — she doesn't need this kind of relic of old-school Hollywood to show off her chops. But this is the kind of thing The Help is best at: forcing easy, organic charm to glimmer through a few layers of ancient dust.

A fast-talking, eye-rolling snarler, Stone wears a truly terrible perm to play the allegedly dowdy Skeeter, a smart but naive recent college graduate who returns to her family's Mississippi plantation in the summer of 1962. She is shocked to discover that, in her absence, not only have her school friends become the casually, cruelly racist white establishment, but also her own beloved childhood maid (Cicely Tyson) has disappeared. Skeeter decides to write about her hometown from the perspective of the black women who work in every white household. Her ins to that world are Aibileen (Viola Davis), a dutiful maid who has a tendency to develop unusually intimate relationships with the white children she's paid to take care of ("You're my real mama, Abi!" a cherubic toddler cringe-worthily exclaims, the second her bio-mom is out of earshot) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), whose inability to become wallpaper/doormat while at work has cost her a few jobs, most recently and spectacularly in the home of the town's coolly despicable queen bee, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard).

The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel, is so sincerely invested in the tenacity and nobility of Aibileen and Minny that to accuse writer/director Tate Taylor of pushing the dreaded Magical Negro button would be a low blow. These women are not merely the wisdom-spouting ciphers that so often exist as only devices to teach white movie characters lessons. They are that — they do actually say things like, "Fried chicken just tend to make you feel better 'bout life," while pretty blonde women look on, beaming — but they're not just that; they're also victims of fairly realistic character flaws, almost as much as they're victims of circumstance.

Skeeter, of course, has her own, somewhat less urgent civil-rights battle, signified by the fact that she's the only white woman in town with a job, while her commitment to her career guarantees her inability to get and keep a boyfriend (a "struggle" still being fought in the average romantic comedy set today). She's led to believe things are different in glam Manhattan, but even her long-distance New York City mentor, a short-skirted book editrix played by Mary Steenburgen, is shown business lunching with multiple men — and, pointedly, going to bed alone.

Maybe it's because her project is partially self-interested — she's not writing about these women to help only their careers — that Skeeter, and the film, neglect to sufficiently answer what is at one point posited as the book-within-the-movie's key question: Why do little white girls who are raised lovingly by black maids turn into raging racist assholes once they've grown to run their own households?

The psychology of this query is too complicated for a film so hell-bent on jerking easy tears and capturing a wide audience. Instead, we get a fairly typical Hollywood flattening of history, with powerful villains and disenfranchised heroes. In one corner, there are contemptibly cowardly conformists like Hilly's gang of girls and their seemingly interchangeable husbands. On the other side are outsiders of many stripes — the black servant class; Skeeter, the unglam brainiac; and assorted white matron figures who seem to have the freedom to buck the norm only because they've outlived their usefulness as women — whose recognition and support of one another lifts all of their boats simultaneously.

As a filmmaker, Taylor seems to be less interested in the stories of these working women than in the mechanics of storytelling — the ways in which reportage and gossip serve, er, separate but equal functions in shaping narratives. The Help is plainly a film about how talking becomes writing, which becomes activism, which turns into history. The night Medgar Evers is killed, Aibileen tries to comfort a paranoid Minny: "We ain't doin' civil rights, we just telling stories like they really happened" — a downplaying that rightfully makes her friend laugh. The characters are well aware of the portent of their story swapping, as is the film. The Help is able to transcend its own puffed-up self-importance in only those few moments when two people on the margins — by choice or by birth — see their own struggles reflected in the other, their individual hardships fading into a shared compulsion to fight back.

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