An inspirational, all-female drama, "The Help" is an unlikely place to discover one of the best screen villains in years. She is Hilly Holbrook, a chatty, chirpy racist played to perfection by Bryce Dallas Howard with a mix of Southern charm and ice-cold sadism. Set in Jackson, Miss., on the cusp of the civil rights movement, the movie doesn't need to show attack dogs and fire hoses; Hilly's half-lowered eyelashes are evil enough.

"The Help" brings a chick-flick sensibility to a serious subject, which is more daring than it might sound. It's also incredibly refreshing. Based on Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel, "The Help" focuses on the domestic front, where men rarely trod, which means the bigots here aren't the usual tobacco-spitters and shotgun- toters. Instead, they wear A-line dresses, heels and nasty smiles.

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Our heroine is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (a winning Emma Stone), a fledgling reporter at the Jackson Journal. Charged with writing the housekeeping column, Skeeter decides to interview actual housekeepers: the town's black maids. Aibileen (Viola Davis, dependably solid) is the first who dares to tell her story, a big risk in such a small town. Others, angered by Hilly's semipsychotic campaign to install "colored" toilets in white homes, follow suit. (The film has one running potty joke, too good to spoil here, that becomes a surprisingly effective symbol of white hypocrisy.)

Like the novel, the movie deserves criticism for its somewhat saintly black characters. But it is sensitively directed by Tate Taylor (like Stockett, a Jackson native) and filled with terrific performances. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain are engaging as a maid and her employer, both outcasts; Cicely Tyson, Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek are mother figures who range from heartbreaking to hilarious. Mary Steenburgen plays a New York publisher who wants Skeeter to write fast, before this whole civil rights thing "blows over."

Is the movie-making light of an era filled with suffering and sacrifice? If anything, it succeeds precisely because it never overdoes the hand-wringing. "The Help" is one thing message movies rarely are: It's fun.