11 October 2011

Mean Girls, 1962 Edition

I read Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help earlier this year, during a phase when I had run out of books I wanted to read in my local library. I didn't pick up the book before because based on a quick glance at the original UK cover, I assumed it was a book about maids in Victorian England; ironically, it turns out that I didn't perceive or notice the colour of the maids' skin. When I did finally read the book, I liked it--more than I liked its predecessor, Gone with the Wind.

It is the early 1960s and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is a recent college graduate who has just returned to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. She wants to be a novellist--or, at least, a journalist--but settles for writing a cleaning advice column for the local rag. Even this is too much for her pushy mother Charlotte and for her bitchy friends--Hilly the Queen Bee, Elizabeth (the Karen Smith of the book), et al--who just want her to get married, have lots kids and go with the flow. But taking advice from her failed application to work at a New York publisher, Skeeter decides to write about what she feels passionately about, which, it turns out, is telling the story of the black maids who raised them all and whom her friends continue to employ to raise their own children.

Abileen works for Elizabeth and has raised dozens of white children but her only son died tragically young. She'd often dreamed of a world where she can be a writer and so she is the first maid Skeeter signs up to write about her experiences. Abileen soon recruits her best friend Minny, who worked for Hilly's family until Hilly fired her, overtly on trumped-up charges of theft but really because Minny used Hilly's bathroom rather than the designated bathroom for the help. Along the way, Skeeter must face her own demons with her mother and her friends and find out what really happened to her own beloved maid, Constantine, who disappeared suddenly while she was at college.

The movie was pretty faithful to the book; at about 2h30, it was also longer than it needed to be but this annoyed me more because of the lazy editing rather than because it was boring. The stand-out performance was from Octavia Spencer, who stole every scene as the sassy Minny, although Allison Janney's flawed but ultimately well-meaning Charlotte Phelan was also great. Jessica Chastain was barely recognisable from The Tree of Life as Celia Foote, a "white trash" girl who has married Hilly's ex and who is ostracised by the mean girls; it felt like she was trying a little too hard in a role that became caricaturish all too easily. Oh, and I totally didn't recognise Sissy Spacek as Missus Walters, Hilly's mother, who has dementia and who is placed in a nursing home by Hilly after she laughs at the revenge Minny takes on Hilly; Missus Walters definitely had the funniest lines.

Overall, I thought it was a good enough movie; the decent casting generally made up for the baggy script and some of the clich├ęs. I'm not sure it is exactly a feel-good movie, although in the girls' loos, that seemed to be what people were saying.

It may be a little unfair on The Help to say this but the best part of the screening was the box of deluxe Dermalogica samples that were being handed out. I've been wanting to check out some Dermalogica products because of Being Dena's praise for them and now I get to try several, including a cleanser and a moisturiser. Although my ticket to see The Help was free, I had been debating whether to go or not, given that I had to go from work to Waterloo and then back up to the Finchley Road for the screening. Now, I'm definitely glad I went.

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