Perhaps the biggest box office surprise of 2011 was “The Help”. The Civil Rights era drama dominated movie theaters to the tune of over $200 million. Based on the immensely popular novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” was adapted for the big screen and directed by the relatively unknown Tate Taylor who was born in raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the deep south city where the film takes place. The movie nicely recaptures that time period and setting both through the look and feel of the picture. You do get a genuine sense of familiarity from the director and it shows onscreen.

At it’s core, “The Help” is a story about racism and the obstacles that the black community faced during the early 1960′s. It particularly focuses on maids, women hired to do everything from cook meals to raise the children of well-to-do white people. These women, simply referred to as the help, earn next to nothing while facing all sorts of embarrassments and humiliations. This is potentially heavy material and the film gives us several strong, emotionally charged moments that you can’t help but be effected by. But the film also dabbles in caricatures, lapses into occasional shallowness, and spends a little too much time away from the truly powerful central story.

The film’s biggest strengths can be found in the mesmerizing performances of Viola Jones and Octavia Spencer. Jones’ Aibileen and Spencer’s Minny are both quite unique and layered characters. They are fascinating individuals and the movie is at it’s best when they are on the screen. I found myself particularly drawn to Spencer. She takes a character that could have been an over the top cliche and beautifully portrays her through a controlled and measured performance. Emma Stone is also good as Skeeter, a young writer returning home after graduating from Ole Miss. After seeing the treatment of the help by some of her town “friends”, Skeeter sets out to convince Aibileen and Minny to let her write about their experiences. There are also several fun but smaller roles featuring Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, and Cicely Tyson.

While “The Help” works well in many areas, it also hits a few speed bumps. The most notable problem with the film is it’s almost cartoonish portrayal of several of the upper-class white woman. Bryce Dallas Howard plays the proverbial villain (for lack of a better term) and her character is so exaggerated that I could never take her seriously. I’m not sure if it’s her acting or the way her character is written but I tend to think it’s a little of both. We get glimpses of this from several other women but not on the same scale as Howard’s Hilly character. I don’t deny for one second that this type of racism existed or that it was a real obstacle that these African American women faced. But I would have loved to see these white women portrayed in a much more believable and sincere fashion.

I always say that you can’t compare a movie with the book it’s based on. A movie is in a different universe with an entirely different set of limitations. Tate does a good job of keeping the main thrust of the story in tact and spends most of the film focused on what makes this a good movie, the story of Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. But the movie does wander off into several more uninteresting directions that do more to take away from the central story than add anything to it. Whether it’s Skeeter’s underplayed and irrelevant romance or Celia’s failed pregnancies and rags-to-riches story, “The Help” sometimes tries to cram too much into too little of a space which leaves the film feeling a little bloated.

Even with a few flaws, “The Help” is a movie that manages to deliver some gripping and powerful scenes. It’s impossible to not be drawn to the main characters and the perfomances from Viola Jones and Octavia Spencer are stunning. The movie manages to maintain the strength of it’s central message even though it could have been stronger with more balanced and believable portrayals of certain characters. But I was moved by “The Help” and although it’s not the most polished and steady film of the year, it certainly deserves the money it has made and the attention it has garnered.