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August 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

For a film with such a charged subject matter — how African-American maids living in Mississippi during the 1960s viewed their employers — it seems odd that many critics focus their attention not on the plot of The Help but on the performances of the lead actors, in particular Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play “the help.” The reason, Carrie Rickey suggests in the Philadelphia Inquirer, may have to do with the fact that Tate Taylor, who adapted the book and directed the movie, is “himself an actor” and is therefore “focused more on the performances than on cinematic storytelling.” Betsy Sharkey in the Los Angeles Times remarks that Taylor’s strength “is in fully mining the comic talents of his actors to help the drama go down.” And with some performances that he evokes, the critics agree. Davis and Spencer “unfurl their characters with elegance, heart and — in Spencer’s case — delightful snap and acerbic sass. Expect to hear their names mentioned as awards season approaches,” writes Linda Barnard in the Toronto Star. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune predicts that an Oscar nomination for Davis seems certain. “I’m not working for her,” he explains, “I’m just passing along news of the nearly inevitable.” Manohla Dargis in the New York Times also singles out Davis for praise, writing, “She doesn’t just turn Aibileen, something of a blur in the novel, into a fully dimensional character, she also helps lift up several weaker performances and invests this cautious, at times bizarrely buoyant, movie with the gravity it frequently seems to want to shrug off.” Says Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times: “Viola Davis is a force of nature and Octavia Spencer has a wonderfully expressive face and flawless comic timing.” And Claudia Puig in USA Today agrees: “Davis and Spencer give pitch-perfect performances.” Not all of the reviews are raves, however. Sara Stewart concludes her review in the New York Post by remarking that the movie “is like a lot of Southern fare made with Crisco: you’ll want to gobble it up, but it’s not particularly nourishing.” And Wesley Morris, one of the few African-American film critics reaches a similar conclusion. “The movie is too pious for farce,” he writes, “and too eager to please to comment persuasively on the racial horrors of the Deep South at that time.”