The Secret Life of Bees
2008, PG-13, 110 min. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany, Tristan Wilds, Nate Parker.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 17, 2008
The film starts off promisingly with the voiceover narration of 14-year-old Lily Owens (Fanning): "I killed my mother when I was 4 years old. That's all I knew about myself." It's an opening lush with the expectation of great melodrama to come or the lurid agonies of a Southern gothic, but The Secret Life of Bees quickly segues into place as a sincere and well-meaning coming-of-age story. Adapted for the screen from Sue Monk Kidd's bestselling novel by director Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily's maturation from her self-loathing girlhood into a more confident teenhood, due largely to her escape from the home of her morose and bitter father (Bettany) into the matriarchal embrace she discovers at the homestead of the unusual Boatwright sisters. Set in 1964 against the background of the newly signed Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation and ensured the universal right to vote, The Secret Life of Bees uses this agitated climate to advance the storyline in a couple of instances but generally exists in a bubble that's devoid of racial bigotry and economic issues. When Lily's black maid Rosaleen (Hudson) tries to register to vote and is beaten and arrested for her efforts, Lily, who is white, decides it's time for the two of them to run away from their unhappy lives. She heads to Tiburon, S.C., a town hinted at by one of her mother's remaining possessions, and there finds the 28-acre home of the Boatwrights: August (Latifah), June (Keys) and May (Okonedo). Inordinately cultured and educated for their time, these three black siblings are unlike anything Lily or Rosaleen has ever encountered. Given refuge by the Boatwrights, the two thrive as Lily learns the art and business of beekeeping from honey entrepreneur August and conscience and heart from cellist, teacher, and NAACP activist June and troubled May, who has taken on all the troubles of the world following the death of her twin sister. Many are the metaphors comparing the lives and beehives of humans and insects, and the figurative honey often drips off the screen. In many ways, The Secret Life of Bees feels like an old-fashioned movie with its homilies, spiritualism, and descriptions of African-Americans as "educated" and "cultured." It feels one step removed from describing these women as "clean" and "well-spoken" – modern buzz words used to cloak insidious racism and social tiers. However, none of these complaints is a real blight against the movie: The opportunity to bask in the presence of this soulful matriarchy is its own reward. Fanning continues to surprise us with her acting aplomb that reveals a maturity and subtlety beyond her years. And what might have been a mere showplace for songstresses-turned-actresses (count 'em) is much richer than might be expected. The Secret Life of Bees generally works like a drone but sometimes provides glimpses of the queens at the center.