Laura Clifford14-year old Lily Owen (Dakota Fanning) holds a deep dark secret about the death of her beloved mother when she was just a child. Her hard-drinking, violent and abusive father has not been the best influence for a child and one day it becomes too much for Lily. She packs her meager belongings and sets off, with her caregiver and friend Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), to the one place where she hopes to find closure with her loss, and ends up on the doorstep of the Boatwright sisters. She asks them for help and eldest sister, August (Queen Latifah), gathers the two refuges into her home in “The Secret Life of Bees.”
Aiming squarely at the black and white adult female audience, feature director Gina Prince-Blythewood adapts the popular Sue Mon Kidd novel set in South Carolina at the height of the equal rights movement when Lyndon Johnson signed into law the landmark Civil Rights Bill. Young Lily lives, if you can call it that, with her abusive father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany). She has suffered, for the last time, his mistreatment, packs her bags and sets off, with Rosaleen, for a better life. Armed only with an old photo of her mom, marked on the bottom “Tiburon SC,” she heads for the town to find out the truth about her mother.
The Boatwright sister August, May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keyes) are unlike any others. May, having lost her twin sister, April, many years before, has a heartache that cannot be quelled. She is also a terrific cook. June is a classical music teacher and first-rate cellist. August, the family matriarch, runs their lucrative honey business, a concern that has been in business for 40 years. Remember, this is at a time where a black business in the South, especially woman-owned, would be a pariah in the racist white society. It is the love and care August gives her bees, however, that keeps white storeowners flocking to their door for the Black Madonna Honey.
Yes, “The Secret Life of Bees” is a chick flick. But, is a well-crafted, neatly told story that has a first rate cast. Dakota Fanning is top billed, as Lily, with a superb ensemble cast that makes the young actress first among equals. Fanning is a talented young actress who is making the transition from child to adult roles. She is one to watch. Queen Latifa gives a comforting, commanding performance as August, an unflappable lady who will risk her own safety for others in need. Her reassuring presence blankets the film with calm and all-will-be-well feeling.
Sophie Okonedo is touching as the troubled May. Her tragic past loss has affected her so much that any sadness overwhelms her. Her story brings a credible melancholy to “The Secret Life of Bees.” Alicia Keyes gives a one note performance as June, the sister who resents the young white girl brought into her home. Her acting varies between sullen and more sullen. Paul Bettany is saddled with the thankless role as the abusive father with only hints of reason for his actions regarding Lily.
The screenplay of Sue Mon Kidd’s novel is, literally, black and white, with Fanning representing the good whites and all the rest of the Caucasians shown as violent redneck bigots. (There is one, sole, exception: a white lawyer who has been a longtime friend to the Boatwright ladies.) The black women are uniformly kind, strong, compassionate, smart and loving. It is simplistic storytelling but hits its mark, tugging on the heartstrings throughout.
Techs are sound with attention paid, but not overtly so, to the period look and feel of the film. They are generic, though, and the time and place could have been anytime, anywhere. Roger Stoffers captures the soft, languid warmth of the South and pays nice attention to the title characters as August, Lily and August’s assistant, Zach (Tristan Wilds), gently and with love gather the precious honey.
“The Secret Life of Bees” should generate good box office from its femme demo. There is little to appeal to the guys out there, even as a date movie. I give it a B-.
Laura did not see this film.
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