See it and weep: “The Secret Life of Bees”
Sometimes you need a good cry. “The Secret Life of Bees,” adapted for the screen from Sue Monk Kidd’s hugely successful novel, contain several powerfully moving scenes that are sure to provoke the tear ducts to action. Even more impressively, it wisely navigates some pretty tricky material, weaving a beautiful tale of pain, tolerance, and love during a tumultuous time for civil rights.
Any film that covers topics such as bigotry and racial harmony while pulling this many heartstrings could easily become (like its allegorical substance) sticky as all get out. But “Bees” earns its sweetness and never veers into sappy territory.
Set in South Carolina in 1964 against a backdrop of Jim Crow segregation, the film’s prologue introduces 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), who lives with her cruel father (Paul Bettany). Lily’s bleak life is underscored by her obsession with learning more about her mother, whom she believes she accidentally killed as a child. She runs away with her black housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson of “Dreamgirls”), and ends up in Tiburon while being guided only by one of her late mother’s possessions. This updated Huck-and-Jim pair lands at the doorstep of the “Caribbean pink” home of the Boatwright sisters, August (Queen Latifah in Matriarch mode), June, the militant cellist (musician Alicia Keys), and the simple-minded and sensitive May ( Sophie Okonedo of “Hotel Rwanda”). Lily is taught apiculture as a metaphor for life, and learns acceptance and generosity among other lessons while coming to grips with her past.
The film succeeds for two primary reasons. It respects its subject material enough to treat it gently and without trying to bludgeon the audience with its message. That’s not to say it doesn’t deal directly with its well-intentioned commentary on racism; but its superb cast is given effectively restrained direction by Gina Prince-Bythewood. This is Queen Latifah’s best work and her maternal instincts give the story a tender but palpable strength. Keys and Okonedo offer a poignant contrast and are likable for distinctly different reasons.
The anchor of this wellspring of emotion is Fanning, who continues to impress even as she ages from childhood to young womanhood-a leap few actors have made successfully. No matter the emotion involved, you believe Fanning’s every word.
The racially sensitive topic may seem overly familiar. (It is practically required of most sports oriented movies nowadays-see “The Express” now playing.) “Bees” covers this territory with a genuine, uniquely upbeat tone.
Irreverence and cynicism may be the dominant themes of the day, but surely there’s a place for a film with the timeless virtues of “The Secret Life of Bees.” Two decades ago a film this moving and well crafted would have been showered with Oscar nominations. (Witness “The Color Purple,” a film not better in any significant way.) But this honey of a film will be lucky to garner awards buzz of any kind.
See it anyway, and bring some Kleenex.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some violence.