March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Thought-provoking adaptation of the best seller serves as a showcase for some strong performances

At first, “The Help,” adapted from Kathryn Stockett's runaway best seller, seems like another trip to the Cinema of Self-Congratulation, in which we’re invited to sit back and feel good about how we’ve moved beyond the prejudices and narrow-minded thinking of an earlier era. In this case, it’s the mindset of 1963 Mississippi, where the Civil Rights movement is on the rise and well-to-do whites are anxiously clinging to the status quo.
We hear them chatter about how dreadful it would be to have to use the same bathrooms as African-Americans, even the ones who work in their homes as maids and nannies. In many cases, these discussions take place within earshot of the domestic workers, who respond with silent, simmering disgust.
Oh, look how far we’ve come, the movie seems to be inviting us to say: Thank goodness everyone today believes in equality and abhors this sort of racist nonsense.
Except, of course, that’s not the case at all. Only last week, the Fox Nation website described President Obama's birthday party as a “hip hop barbecue,” which led anonymous forum commenters (who needs white sheets when you can hide under the cloak of a cute pen name?) to cast aspersions on the Obamas that were much nastier than anything heard in “The Help.” Instead of celebrating the enlightenment we’ve all supposedly experienced in the last half-century, “The Help” instead forces us to look in the mirror; the reflection is not always flattering.
There are several scenes in which director Tate Taylor goes a bit overboard to make the necessary point, and Bryce Dallas Howard — as the haughty Hilly, the sneering socialite who eventually gets her “just desserts” in the nastiest possible manner — sometimes dances on the edge of campiness with her one-dimensional portrayal of a Southern-fried wicked witch. But on the whole, “The Help” functions both as a compelling drama and as a terrific conversation-starter. How far have we really come in terms of respecting one another?
The marvelously expressive Emma Stone (whose face reveals each emotion the second she feels it) plays Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, who comes home from Ole Miss with a new-fangled idea: writing a magazine piece that would chronicle the lives and experiences of the African-American women who clean the homes, raise the children and cook the meals for affluent white families. (Be forewarned: The crunch of perfectly fried chicken in this film shakes the walls like the explosions in a “Transformers” flick.)
Skeeter wears her non-conformist attitude boldly. Her frizzy, barely brushed hair stands out in a sea of carefully coiffed bouffants, honeybuns and beehives, and she has a copy of “Native Son” on her bookshelf. But her empathy is sincere and, in the eyes of her friends and neighbors, scandalous.
It’s also mystifying to people like her hand-wringing, marriage-minded mother, Charlotte (an amusing Allison Janney). When Skeeter rejects a seemingly perfect suitor, insisting she despises him, Charlotte gets to deliver the movie’s choicest bit of down-home wisdom: “Love and hate are two horns on the same goat, Eugenia — and you need a goat!”
Skeeter gets brighter insights from Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a veteran housekeeper who is deferential and dutiful, but not always at peace with her station in life. Aibileen knows how to hold her tongue, a skill her flinty friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) has never mastered and a shortcoming that leads to serious trouble.   
While Skeeter is the anchor of the film and “The Help” provides savory parts for Sissy Spacek (as a flighty matron) and Jessica Chastain (who is heartbreakingly fragile as a bewildered trophy wife), this is ultimately Davis and Spencer’s show. Every time the movie threatens to veer off into the land of Southern soap opera, their earthy, vividly drawn portrayals put it back on track. Just as Minny and Aibileen are the power behind the thrones in the houses in which they work, Davis and Spencer are the driving forces behind the movie, giving “The Help” a major boost.