You can feel the Mississippi heat bearing down as you watch "The Help," to say nothing of the actual heat wave currently soaking the nation or coming soon to a theater near you.
But make no mistake: This is no easy, breezy summer movie.
That's a great thing. While the best-selling book that inspired the film has been billed a beach read, its subject is serious -- black maids speaking out about their treatment on the cusp of the civil rights movement -- and the movie does the story justice. "The Help" will move you and make you burst out laughing. During a month known for forgettable flicks, it leaves a lasting impression.
Most of that is due to stellar performances. If anyone deserves a standing ovation this summer, it's Viola Davis. She is unrecognizable as Aibileen, transformed into an aging black maid who desperately wants the true story of her profession to see the light of day. Her performance is stunning, the kind of spectacle that Oscar nominations are made of. (Davis scored one of those, along with a slew of other nods and awards, for 2008's "Doubt.")
Emma Stone sinks her teeth into her meatiest role to date as writer/rebel Eugenia, better known as Skeeter. Stone has put her stamp on many movies in the past year -- "Friends With Benefits," "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," scheduled for release next summer. She holds her own in "The Help," pulling off Skeeter's naivete and do-gooder sensibilities to a tee. Stone was already one of Hollywood's brightest young actresses; this movie shoots her star a bit higher.
"The Help's" supporting cast shines too. Long-time character actress but relative unknown Octavia Spencer will make you howl as Minny, Aibleen's sassy sidekick. When her culinary dunce of an employer suggests that maybe Minny burn the fried chicken so her husband doesn't suspect she's hired a maid, she gets served a wide-eyed glare and four words: "Minny don't burn chicken."
Bryce Dallas Howard turns ice queen as Hilly, a cruel, vindictive housewife you'll love to hate. Allison Janney steals scenes as Skeeter's ailing, but still nagging, mother, and Sissy Spacek plays Hilly's improbably mischievous mom with zeal.
Faithful readers of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 book will notice incongruities. Hilly's not plump. Skeeter's far too good-looking to bemoan her curly hair and supposedly tall frame. As is often the case when Hollywood takes the wheel, the grittier parts of the story get glossed up if not eliminated altogether. The hair-dos, the dresses, the sweeping scenes of cotton plantations -- it's all a little over the top, like someone went online and ordered a kit called "How to Make a Movie About the Jim Crow Era."
But then come the scenes that take your breath away, as when an entire church stands to applaud Aibleen and Minny, the law be damned. Nitpicking interlude over.
The book versus the movie debate is inevitable. But "The Help," the movie, in theaters Wednesday, stands on its own with must-see performances that do the paper version proud.