Hmm....my answer is "yes". Or at least a solid "probably". The film exceeded all expectations at the Box Office this weekend and is basically locked to reach the magical 100M which would be an outstanding achievement for an August release that is also relatively low-budgeted (25M) AND a period drama (sure, it has funny parts, maybe enough to confuse the HFPA who thought Pride and Prejudice was a comedy, but The Help is a drama...maybe the funniest drama this year, but it IS a drama).
It is a crowdpleaser for sure and we all know, that a remarkably popular crowdpleaser could have a great shot (or at least a shot) at reaching that crucial 5% of No1 votes that is the new requirement in the Academy's best picture category. If it were the simple 10-slot-year, it would be an easy call, but this new rule complicates things. The biggest problem might be the simple fact, that even though the audience seems to love it, the critics only liked it...and there were a few harsh reviews, too. The Metacritic-score (62) does not exactly scream "best picture material" BUT it isn't necessarily a dealbreaker, either...even though it should be emphasized that there were only 2 (!) best picture nominees with an MC-score under 65 in the last 10 years and one of those had a ton of prestige (The Reader), while the other was a HUGE hit/crowdpleaser (The Blind Side). The Help seems to be somewhere between these two : it does feature acclaimed actresses (Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson) not to mention remarkably promising 'newcomers' (Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard), BUT despite the fascinating historical setting, it loses a lot of prestige to historical inaccuracies and ramblings about how 'dated' and even 'racist' it is to make a film about that era today. On the other hand, the film IS a hit, how big of a hit, that's still up in the air, but for now it looks like the sleeper of the summer. So the film is "kind of" prestigious and a (probably big) moneymaker.
The biggest obstacle will be probably the lack of directing nomination. The Academy rarely gives a pass to a director whose film was only 'liked' by the critics and not 'loved' and even when they do, the director in question is ALWAYS a big name. Tate Taylor doesn't have that luxury, unless the campaign really goes for the "heart votes" and emphasizes his outstanding achievement and struggle to get this film made and tries to win 'integrity-points' for the 'friend-thing' (the novel's writer is his childhood friend and they sticked by each other all along even when the mean big studio wanted bigger names etc.).
My guess, that if the film won't be ridiculously frontloaded - unlikely - and indeed ends up over 100M stateside, it could have a good shot at picture, actress, supporting actress, score, song, costume, art direction. (On paper, the directing achievement and the screenplay are long shots because of the lukewarm critical reception.)
Let's see how this could play out :
Best Picture - Although it has a lot of things going for it, there are two damaging factors hard to overcome : the critics and the early release date. Good news is, that critics might have been careful to 'love' the film, but they DID love the performances...and most of the Academy's voters are actors...and considering this is an outstanding acting ensemble, most of these voters could easily go for it AND secure that crucial 5% No1 votes.
Best Actress - That's a tough one, because the film basically has three female leads. Octavia Spencer will be most certainly considered the typical "scenestealing supporting player", so it will probably come down to Emma Stone and Viola Davis. If the studio wants the best possible outcome regardless of the co-leads-situation, they will probably realize, that the film might not be strong enough to win the Best Actress race (especially in a year of Thatchers and Monroes and...Alberts), SO they will camapign Emma Stone in the lead race, for whom the nomination alone would be a great reward already AND put Viola Davis in the supporting category, who could be a frontrunner there, meanwhile she could be left out of the lead race entirely...if the studio doesn't play their cards right and let category confusion strike once again, Viola Davis could be Lesley Manville all over again......and I REALLY hope that won't happen.
BUT if the studio realizes that Davis got the better reviews therefore making her a stronger Best Actress contender than Stone, they could pull a 'Prada' on us and ignore the young, pretty co-lead in favor of the highly acclaimed veteran actress. The problem with this second version, that it's best scenario is probably one Lead Actress nomination, meanwhile the first - and safer - option could result a Lead Actress nomination AND a potentially easy Supporting Actress victory for Davis.
Best Supporting Actress - Considering this film already looks like one of THE greatest acting ensembles of 2011, I think it's safe to say there will be considerable internal competition here, and even though there are at least 3 serious contenders (Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard...not to mention Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson), my money is on Octavia Spencer who is also a co-lead therefore she has the biggest part among the supposed supporting players. Because of the relationshop of their characters, it would be lovely to see her getting nominated with Jessica Chastain, whose performance has been also praised (she is basically canceling herself out with being in 8 films this year and probably excelling all), but for now, Spencer is the only safe bet here, although if Viola Davis gets a supporting campaign, she should be a stronger contender than 'Minny'...we'll see!. (And of course, Howard's industry support probably shouldn't be underestimated, either.
Best Original Score - Thomas Newman is a wonderful composer, he delivered great work once again AND has been nominated 10 (!) times already, so he is definitely considered overdue. His problem could be simple : if the Academy is aware of another potential snub, they might not even nominate him.
Best Original Song - Now this is the category the film could actually win. Mary J. Blige's song is exactly the kind of track, the Academy would go for in a heartbeat : power ballad written and performed by a superstar.
Best Costume Design - Sharen Davis received nominations for 'Ray' and 'Dreamgirls', this could be her third if the Academy REALLY goes for the film.
Best Art Direction - Again...IF they really go for it.
My best guess ? Picture, Davis (supporting), Spencer (supporting), Song, Costume...we'll see!