Emma Stone is ever-beguiling, and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer turn it excellent performances. I was extra-impressed by Bryce Dallas Howard as the uber-bitchy Hilly. Not that she's a bad actress, but I'd never seen her in a role that wasn't not sweet and fragile-seeming. I literally didn't recognize her.
I think the movie made all the moves it intended to. The tone was controlled. It stayed light, didn't drift into Lifetime movie territory, and avoided preachy history lessons... but there was a certain cost for this. I never felt super connected to or worried about the main characters--there was an element of distance. There were real, dark stakes, but the movie (like the book) skirted around them. The heart-wrenching stories the maids have to tell are told to us, not experienced by us. The "mean" white people in the film are such caricatures that it's easy to believe that, put in the same circumstances, we would have certainly been more enlightened.
Finally, although this is an ensemble cast, the main character of the movie is really Skeeter, who, if you haven't read the book, is white. I don't fault the choice, but there is a certain risk, that even with the right-minded message of the film, I'm not sure you really make a movie about a community of black people during the the beginning of the civil rights era whose lives seem only able to be changed by the white character without it feeling just a tad patronizing. I've heard a few such complaints about the book, and am sure, when it is released, there will be more about the movie.
My initial instinct, though, is to defend the movie on at least two fronts:
Sadly, one of them is business more than art. The decision to allow the audience to enter the world with the eyes of a white person will garner a bigger and more mainstream audience. Good box office for a film where every main character is a woman, and half of the main characters are black is good news for other films that want to focus on these demographics, which is awesome. It's not pure, but it's a path.
My second defense is that there are a lot of events that have happened in the world, and a lot of ways to treat them. You can look at a concentration camp and write Elie Wiesel's Night, or make Life is Beautiful--which also withstood some criticism at the time for not taking the experiences of the holocaust seriously enough. I would say, when a topic is important and resonant, there's room for many stories, and many perspectives, especially if the stories are well-crafted and have a degree of truth such that they don't become just more noise for the better-crafted stories to get lost in. There is a lot to say about our history--segregation, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and while this movie benefits us by bringing it up, helping us remember and assimilate our history, no one work is can say it all, nor should it feel it has to. If The Help acts as a gateway for some people to revisit their history books, inspires read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, that's great; but a creative work is not obligated serve any agenda, even a right-minded one, even if people like me will look at in Critical Studies class fashion and question it.
I might be rambling. But I think that's what I think. If you go see The Help, I'd love to hear what you think.