Contender: ‘The Help’

The Contenders 2011

Oh, sure, it’s been called middlebow. And yes, critics — mostly male — strained to recognize the film’s strengths. But soph helmer-scribe Tate Taylor treated the beloved bestselling material with lively respect that not only pleased the novel’s legions of fans but significantly broadened the audience for this late-summer sleeper hit to the tune of $166 million.

Tackling issues of integration, tolerance and sisterhood, “The Help” delivers Academy-friendly heft in a crowd-pleasing package, placing it in the realm of such previous best picture nominees as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Jerry Maguire.” But above-the-line awards chatter centers squarely on acting: Viola Davis (a lead contender), Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard have made an impact in the film’s showier roles, which bodes well for ensemble prizes (like last month’s Hollywood Film Award) but could create internal competition in the supporting actress category.

Davis is a previous Oscar nominee (“Doubt”), while veteran actress Spencer is now, oddly, an overnight success. Chastain, with three films in 2011, can also claim that title. Taylor may generate interest in the adapted screenplay category, given the fact that his script hewed closely to the book while also delivering onscreen.

Release date: Aug. 10
Disney
Read the Variety review

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