Brimming with believable, likeable women characters and set against the turbulence of Mississippi in the 1960s, "The Help" is almost as good as Kathryn Stockett's novel.

Amid what is sure to be known as The Summer of the Superhero, "The Help" is a drama about race relations in the South. It's fictional, to be certain, and does not pretend to be a documentary. Each character faces her own struggles - some are internal, and others are created by society.

The main focus of the story is Skeeter (Emma Stone, on neighboring screens in both "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and "Friends With Benefits"), a young woman who has come home after graduating from college.

Skeeter takes a job writing a household hints column for a local newspaper. She's the odd woman out in her little clique in which most of the women are married with children. Her friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) thinks she may have found a good match for Skeeter, and Skeeter's mother encourages her daughter to meet him, too.

Meanwhile, Skeeter has an idea that she runs by an editor in New York: What if she could write about the women, all African-American, who work for Skeeter's family and the families of her friends? The editor (Mary Steenburgen) likes the topic because these anecdotes will tie in with the Civil Rights movement.

Two of the "maids" (they are so much more than that, literally running the households of their employers along with raising their children) agree to talk to Skeeter, although with some trepidation. Aibileen (Viola Davis, "Doubt") and Minny (Octavia Spencer, "Dinner For Schmucks") agree to talk with Skeeter under the condition that she keeps their names secret. Telling the truth about their experiences with their employers could threaten the lives of the older women.

Meanwhile, as Skeeter tries to find her own place in a changing time, so does another young woman. Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, "The Tree of Life") is despised by the other women in town, who refuse to take her calls or invite her to their bridge parties. She secretly hires Minny, who begins to realize her new boss is in need of more than just cooking lessons.

The acting is superb, with Davis stealing every scene in which she appears. The courage of Aibilene and Minny, and of Skeeter in a different way, is inspiring to behold.

And if you like the movie, you will love the book. A story like "The Help" is hard to find.

 

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