The Secret Life of Bees (review)

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The secret life of bees? More like the secret life of women. The bee thing, it’s a metaphor, see, for how half the human race lives shrouded in mystery and darkness and, I guess, sweetness and honey. Or shrouded in mysterious honey, at least, if we’re to take the word of pop culture, which ignores half the human race unless it can serve as a prize to the male hero, or unless it can be pandered to — and poorly, at that — with fluffy pink junk that is almost always simply men’s ideas about what these mysterious honey-covered creatures are like when they’re hidden away in their secret realms of, you know, the world.
I’m not ribbing The Secret Life of Bees, which is a deeply moving film about learning to understand where we come from and where we’re going, about incorporating grief and acceptance into our souls in order to make our lives richer and not letting ourselves wither over sorrow. I’m ribbing our culture that makes this film extra-special extraordinary because the people those things are happening to here are female. I shouldn’t have to applaud even louder at something that shouldn’t be a rarity: a movie that understands that women are human, and gives us a story about a whole bunch of different women who are not intended to represent three billion people — as the one token movie girl often is expected to — but only themselves, as individuals. As people. Imagine that. And not a pink frill to be found anywhere.

Oh my god, are you sitting down? I almost forgot to mention: all but one of those human female people here is of a skin tone that speaks of some recent African heritage. I know it’s a lot to take in, the idea that black women are also individuals as varied and diverse as white men, or that movies about them don’t have to look like a Tyler Perry minstrel show. Deal with it.

And then enjoy it. Bees is a lovely story about an ugly time, the summer of 1964, when the new Civil Rights Act was making life in the American South more complicated for the very people it was meant to help. When Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson: Sex and the City: The Movie) dares to talk in a way less than 100 percent deferential to a white man in rural South Carolina, she is made to pay for it, to the horror of her adolescent charge, Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning: Charlotte’s Web, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story), and this becomes the last straw in Lily’s own personal upset. Haunted by memories of her long-dead mother and desperate to find out more about her — as well as to get away from her father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany: Iron Man, The Da Vinci Code), who has turned his misery on his daughter — Lily hits the road, dragging Rosaleen along, to another town she has reason to believe may hold some answers.

If Bees feels as if it’s dragging its feet just a bit in the beginning, that’s all forgetten when Lily and Rosaleen meet the spirited Boatwright sisters, who run their own little honeymaking business, enjoy a cultured lifestyle the likes of which neither Lily nor Rosaleen has even been exposed to before, and accept the young woman and the young girl into their home with open arms and open hearts. And the movie — adapted from the novel by Sue Monk Kidd by filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood, in the first theatrical followup to her 2000 film Love and Basketball — seems to open its heart and arms at that point, too, wrapping you up in this odd little cobbled-together family and inviting you into their warmth and their love. Fanning — just turning 14 years old when the movie was shot, the same age as her character — is once more amazingly wise in a role that would seem to require some hindsight on adolescence, not that an actor be mired in the awful depths of it just as her character is. The singer Alicia Keys (Smokin’ Aces) takes on a challenge in the tough and sharp Boatwright sister June, and acquits herself well; Queen Latifah (Mad Money, The Perfect Holiday) as the eldest Boatwright, August, again proves she has both movie-star charisma and gravitas in spades. But it’s the wonderful Sophie Okonedo (Martian Child, Tsunami: The Aftermath) as the sensitive and troubled May Boatwright who steals the film: though she received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance in Hotel Rwanda a few years back, she’s been mostly under the radar till now. Bees should change that.

Did I say there wasn’t a pink frill to be found? I lied. The Boatwright house is painted an aggressively Pepto-Bismol pink, in precisely the kind of frill The Secret Life of Bees deserves to spout: it’s bold, loud, and flamboyant, just the right touch for a movie that’s all those things in spirit even while it’s gentle, shrewd, and kind on its surface.

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Sat, Oct 25, 2008 8:49am

Somehow, this film didn’t work for me. I loved the book, but the adaptation seemed to be telling the story rather than making it real (if that makes any sense). Part of the problem is the casting of Hudson in the role of Rosaleen, a character who is supposed to be the personification of the “fist” in the carved statue of Mary that forms a centerpiece in the film. In the novel Rosaleen is hugely fat, outspoken, and a true champion of Lily – she is the only character in the novel able to stand up to T-Ray and get him to back down. She is very much like the character of Sophia in Color Purple – and her confrontation with the white racists is very much like Sophia’s. Hudson is just too pretty, too reserved, too quiet. Kidd’s thesis is that there are many kinds of love – August’s compassionate heart (like the heart on the Mary statue, which everyone touches for strength) and Rosaleen’s fist (which fights against injustice). This is missing from the film. Similarly, Fanning is wrong for the part of Lily, if only because she is incapable of playing a sexually curious young girl in her scenes with Zach. A central part of the novel is the relationship between 16-year-old Zach and 14-year-old Lily – there is supposed to be real simmering attraction between them, but this doesn’t come across at all in the film. Fanning’s Lily just seems so very young, and her attempts to gaze longingly at the young man playing Zach simply don’t work. Because of this, crucial moments in the final third of the film don’t have the impact they should. Overall, I wouldn’t suggest not seeing the movie, but it is a disappointment.