A young journalist begins work on her first book amid the tumult of the civil rights era. The black women who mind the genteel homes of Jackson, Mississippi, suffer the ignominy of racism in quiet dignity while their white employers take them for granted, belittling them behind their backs and to their faces. “The Help” is the kind of book that gets turned into a movie for the Lifetime Channel. Only it’s not on the Lifetime Channel, it’s in theaters. And it’s not a sappy chick flick, it’s a gem.

The Help + poster

The Help movie poster

Amanda Stone plays Skeeter, an aspiring journalist at a time when young women were expected to marry and settle down. Instead, she gets an idea for a book about the town’s maids written in their own words. Among them is Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) who works for the Leefolts, and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) who suffers at the hand of the racist Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).

The Help + Howard

Bryce Dallas Howard

Minny is fired for using the home’s ‘whites only’ bathroom and, after exacting her revenge with a homemade pie, is hired by Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a pariah among the town’s housewives.

Based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is a meandering ensemble piece bound together by strong themes exploring racism, friendship and trust. First-time director Tate Taylor does a superlative job with his cast, eliciting stark, differentiated characterizations from each of his actors. Aibileen is strong and firm in her convictions but is smart enough to know when to hold her tongue lest she get fired. Minny is like Aibileen only too impetuous and vengeful to keep her job.

The Help + Davis + Spencer

Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer

Hilly is a racist who doesn’t know she’s racist. She hosts a fundraiser for underprivileged children in Africa to illustrate goodwill toward “the negroes,” yet insists Minny use a separate bathroom away from the house even during a driving rain storm. Minny’s next employer, Celia Foote, wants to be accepted by the other housewives but having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks connects more easily with the help.

Skeeter is the least compelling character, serving as a cipher for the maids to get their word out. She confronts racism in her own family when her mother caves to peer pressure and fires their long-time maid. Chris Lowell plays an arrogant Southern gentleman who empathizes with Skeeter but breaks it off when her book turns the town on its ear. This superfluous subplot constitutes “The Help”’s greatest failing, but it’s an incidental element that hardly hamstrings the movie.

The Help + Stone

Emma Stone

So how in the world did a studio manage to make an excellent movie at a time when they seem committed to sewage? “The Help” was shepherded by Christopher Columbus and Steven Spielberg, which means Taylor and Stockett were shielded from development execs Disney. That’s enough to keep from making an awful movie but not enough to make a great one. That took the prodigious talents of the writer and director.

“The Help” is an Oscar-caliber movie that may or may not get nominated. Disney is marketing it for fans of the book and grandmothers everywhere, but “The Help” is less a chick flick than it is an insightful look at intolerance and the courage it takes to overcome.

**** (out of four)

Some of the next release dates for The Help: Denmark  8 September, Sweden 23 September, Portugal 29 September, Singapore 20 October, Ireland – Spain – UK 28 October, Germany 17 November, France  23 November 2011, Netherlands 26 January 2012, Italy 17 February 2012.

All Pictures courtesy of DreamWorks Studios.