Secret Life of Bees (2008) dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Sophie Okenedo, Alicia Keys
Sue Monk Kidd's novel “The Secret Life of Bees”, the story of a young white girl's coming of age in the racially segregated South, when adapted for the screen suffers from that familiar righteous preciousness of films like “The Great Debaters” and “Pride”. It’s all an intensive two-hour effort to inspire us with impossibly profound heroic libertarian characters and triumphant soul healing.
Director Prince-Blythewood paints a John Irving-like fantasy world of Southern charm and idealistic fancy. I guess they call it ‘feel-good-filmmaking’ - to the extreme. It’s the 1960’s in the South and Dakota Fanning plays Lily the motherless daughter of a spiteful violent bigoted father (surprise casting of Paul Bettany!). One day she just can’t take the abuse any longer and runs away with her housekeeper Rosealeen (Jennifer Hudson).
They knock on the door of a family of three black beekeeper sisters and ask to be taken in and taken care of. Miraculously they have room and oblige. As Lily gets to know her new family, we get to feel the laughter and tears of this earnest bunch amid the troubled times of racial segregation in the south.
Of course we get the requisite metaphors of life to those ‘independently-minded' bees 'wanting the leave the nest'. It's on the nose and sickening earnest. As Ms. Latifah says “Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about” – just like Lily.
The interracial romance with Lily and Zach is telegraphed with no subtly. When the handsome young Tristan Wilds appears on screen we know we’re going to see Dakota Fanning’s first on screen kiss – can’t wait!
Dakota Fanning is the saving grace of the picture. With each new role we see maturity and confidence that she’ll soon become an A-list actress when she officially grows up. Sophie Okonedo's clichéd slow-witted sister role is simply excruciating and unwatchable. She spends most of her screen time gawking with her mouth open or about to cry. Queen Latifah is well... Queen Latifah, the mother hen of everyone. The same role she plays in every film. And Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson simply seem out of place.
The pop acoustic montage cues feels out of place as well, too contemporary and distracting from the 60’s setting. There’s certainly a plethora of lovely pictures. Most of the film is bathed in golden magic hour sunlight congruent with the tenderness of the material.
Perhaps I’m not the audience for this type of film, but at least “The Great Debaters” had some characters with a degree of edge. Everyone in “The Secret Life of Bees” are as soft and cushy as a fluffy feather pillow.
"The Secret Life of Bees" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment