Fans of the coming-of-age novel The Secret Life of Bees will be pleased to know that the newly released film version is just as sweet as its predecessor. Set in the South against the civil rights movement, it evokes a strong sense of heart and family relations but is also heavy-handed getting those messages across. Name recognition will attract fans of author Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel, but getting new bodies to see the film version will be a difficult task at the box office.
The Secret Life of Bees is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood ( Love and Basketball ), who sets up the film in a fairytale structure as a way to balance out the wholeness of the characters with the difficult racial topics it’s addressing at the same time. It’s somewhat successful, as we’re thrust into the world of Lily (Dakota Fanning), a young Southerner who flees her abusive father (Paul Bettany) and seeks refuge in the beekeeping hands of August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her two sisters May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keyes). Lily is accompanied on her journey by housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), a fiery woman who is proud of who she is but also scared of the racially tense times she lives in.
If you were to guess that after the first-act set up, the story then turns into a predictable A-B-C structure of Lily finding herself against love, family and racial tensions in the South, you would be right. Very little of The Secret Life of Bees is something we haven’t seen before and on top of that, the common ground isn’t covered in a way that inspires a fresh take at all. It’s just more of the same: Lily and Rosaleen get into trouble, find comfort in the arms of outsiders who later become a second family and discover that life is special despite its somewhat messy nature. Even the civil rights backdrop of the story is handled in a been-there-done-that way with one-dimensional racists saying the ignorant and deluded things that one-dimensional racists say in the movies. The by-the-numbers story structure of The Secret Life of Bees is its primary drawback from being something special.
Having said that, much credit is due to Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson for doing their best to elevate simply written characters on paper into something more transcendent onscreen. Fanning and Hudson have the biggest task of carrying the film, and they play off each other in a warm and nuanced way. The young actress who first made critics notice her in
I Am Sam
has matured into a slightly older child star who proves she has what it takes to stick around for good.
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keyes and Sophie Okonedo
Director/Screenwriter: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, James Lassiter, Will Smith and Joe Pichirallo
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and some violence
Runtime: 110 min.
Release Date: October 17