© 2008 Ray Wong
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tackles racial, familial and faith issues from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl who is desperate for a family who loves her.
Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) grows up knowing she is responsible for her mother's death and her father's misery. When her housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) is brutally beaten up and in danger of being killed by the town's racists, Lily runs away from home and takes Rosaleen with her. Not knowing where to go, they trek their way to Tiburon, SC that may hold the secret to Lily's mother's past.
Once there, a hunch leads Lily and Rosaleen to three African-American beekeeping sisters: August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo) Boatwright. The sisters take them in and give them a place to stay and work. Here, Lily learns the valuable lessons of beekeeping, family, friendship, and love -- something she never received from her father. She also falls in love with August's godson, Zachary (Tristan Wilds), a 16-year-old black man who aspires to become a lawyer. While the civil right movement is tearing the South apart, Lily learns the secret lives of her parents, and realizes that she is, indeed, loved.
As the young protagonist/narrator, Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds) is growing up. She's no longer the naive child we knew; instead, she is on the verge of womanhood, and she portrays Lily's vulnerability and resolve of self-worth convincingly. Fanning has a quiet way of evoking emotions, definitely an old soul trapped in a young girl's body. She's going to have a long career ahead of her.
Queen Latifah (What Happens in Vegas) is wonderfully maternal as August, the eldest of the Boatwright sisters. She exudes warmth, wisdom, and self-esteem that is contagious. Jennifer Hudson (Sex and the City), in comparison, doesn't fair as well. She's supposedly Lily's "mother figure" but she comes off as weak (except for an earlier scene) and uncertain. Alicia Keys (The Nanny Diaries) is poised and adequately distant as the skeptic of the Boatwright family. Unfortunately, we don't know enough about her character to really get a true feeling about her. Sophie Okonedo (Martian Child) is sympathetic and sweet as May, a tragic character who suffers from depression all her life.
While the women dominate the film, a number of male actors supply the counterbalance rather nicely. Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code) is effectively gaunt, intense, and conflicted as Lily's father. Here is a man we're supposed to hate, but he gives T. Ray Owens enough dimension for us to empathize with him. Tristan Wilds (Half Nelson) is amiable as the young man who captures Lily's heart, and Nate Parker (Tunnel Rats) is solid and charismatic in a minor role as June Boatwright's suitor.
Adapted from Sue Monk Kidd's bestselling novel, the screenplay, written by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), retains the somber tone of Kidd's story. The plot moves somewhat slow in the beginning. But once the inciting incident happens, especially after Lily and Rosaleen arrive at the Boatwrights', the plot picks up with a character richness that is like honey (pardon the pun). Prince-Bythewood also keeps the symbolism, and layers in the social themes into the mostly personal tale of self-discovery. There are keys scenes that pack extraordinarily emotional punches. The source material has a lot to do with it, but her adaptation as well as the actors help bring everything successfully to the big screen.
That said, there's one tragic turn of event in the story that I feel is forced and manipulative. I'm sure the author and screenwriter have the best intention and there's a whole gamut of emotion that gos into it, but the result seems a bit lacking. It just feels melodramatic and manipulative, when compared to the more genuine and thus more emotional scenes elsewhere.
Prince-Bythewood's direction is steady and effective. Her use of colors, lights, and movements is commendable. The cinematography is impressive. I'm not sure, however, that the production conjures the right feeling about the mid-60s. Something seems off. Perhaps because the actors, especially Fanning, Latifah and Keys, look and feel somewhat too modern for the time period. Still, her slow and steady direction helps give the film a solid foundation. And she allows the writing and the characters to reveal the layers organically without trying to spoon-feed us with exposition. At times, the conflicts seem a bit mundane; however, the characters make us care deeply, even when they're just sitting around sipping sweetened iced tea.
While a "women's story" dominated by wonderfully drawn female characters, The Secret Life of Bees is hardly a chick flick. It's an emotional journey and a genuine drama that delivers powerful feelings and revelations about human relationships, and gives us a glimpse of the time period. Worth a look, and bring your wives, girlfriends, mothers, grandmothers, daughters, aunts and nieces. It's no secret that the writer-director and actors hit almost all the right notes with this one.
Stars: Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany, Hilarie Burton, Tristan Wilds, Nate Parker
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Writer: Gina Prince-Bythewood (based on Sue Monk Kidd's novel)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, violence and brief language
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.4 out of 10