'The Help' (PG-13)

Director Tate Taylor’s engaging adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel arrives at a strange time of year; movies with such hefty pedigrees usually show up in the fall. But its release in the waning days of summer is a bracing reminder that there’s more to entertainment than superheroes, hyper intelligent apes and beloved teen wizards.

Unique and sensitive in its treatment of a potentially tricky subject, The Help is a moving, superbly cast examination of a point of view that has been largely neglected: that of black domestic workers in the South during the most turbulent days of the civil rights era.

The trailers may leave the impression that The Help is more comedy than drama, and the film can be pointedly funny. But Taylor, a close friend of Stockett’s who also adapted the screenplay, never loses sight of the sharp edge of casual, pervasive racism and how it poisons the lives of everyone — black and white — in early 1960s Jackson, Miss.

Three women lie at the film’s center: quiet Aibileen (the great Viola Davis, a sure bet for an Oscar nomination), who loves her employer’s small daughter, Mae Mobley, as if the child were her own; her best friend, Minny (the equally terrific Octavia Spencer), the best cook in Jackson, who has run afoul of her bossy, deceitful employer, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, the broadly comic villain of the piece) because she can’t censor her sharp tongue; and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone in a heartfelt performance), a socially awkward college graduate with dreams of becoming a writer, much to the dismay of her traditionally minded mother (Allison Janney).

When Skeeter decides to write a book compiling accounts of daily life from the town’s maids, she first meets with resistance from her subjects; what black woman would dare to tell tales about her white boss? But gradually, Aibileen realizes she can’t stay silent. Humiliated by her boss’ insistence on building a separate bathroom for her in the garage — “They have different diseases,” Hilly opines loudly and repeatedly — she understands that some risks are worth taking.

The dangers Aibileen — and, before long, Minny — face once they begin to work with Skeeter are somewhat watered down in the film. You never feel Taylor will let anything too terrible happen to these characters.

Following Stockett’s blueprint, the director relegates men to the sidelines. Scenes between Skeeter and a would-be suitor turn out to be the least interesting plotline in the film. The Help is most interested in its women, including Jessica Chastain as Celia, a former white-trash girl who married up. Shunned by Hilly and her friends, Celia hires Minny because she’s such an outcast she hasn’t heard the rumors about Minny’s bad behavior (and boy, is it ever bad). Within the confines of the times, a sort of friendship blossoms between the two outcasts.

Taylor painstakingly recreates Stockett’s social pecking order, illustrating that small town Southern society had a way of punishing all who refuse to comply with its rules. There are moments of heartbreaking clarity: Minny explaining to her daughter before her first day of work that she must taste food with a different spoon than she cooks with; Aibileen whispering platitudes (“You are good; you are smart; you are kind”) to the neglected Mae Mobley, a child she will inevitably lose. The Help will make you laugh, yes, but it can also break your heart. In the dog days of August moviegoing, that’s a powerful recommendation.

Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Ahna O’Reilly.

Director/screenwriter: Tate Taylor. Based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett.

Producers: Michael Barnahan, Chris Columbus, Brunson Green.

A Dreamworks Pictures release. Running time: 137 minutes. Thematic material. Playing at area theaters