Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood. USA. 2008. 110 mins
Inspirational life lessons abound in The Secret Life Of Bees, a wholesome, heartwarming version of the Sue Monk Kidd bestseller. The mixture of personal heartache and social history is handled with tender loving care, but is so sentimental and sermonising that it risks feeling more like a school lesson or a Sunday church service than a must-see movie. The audience that hangs on the latest Oprah Winfrey book recommendations or admires well-heeled literary adaptations should turn out in sufficient numbers to make this a small domestic theatrical success with a longer shelf life in ancillary. The very sentimental, extremely American nature of the material is likely to make it a hard sell in most international territories.
Set in the American south in 1964, the film combines the emotional travails of teenager Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) with a wider sense of America in transition: President Lyndon B Johnson is signing a Civil Rights Bill enshrining equality between the races in law if not in the reality of daily lives. Ten years earlier, Lily’s mother attempted to leave the family and was accidentally shot dead by Lily. Now lonely, she lives with her violent, volatile father T. Ray (Paul Bettany). Her sole friend is black housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). When Rosaleen falls foul of local racists, Lily rescues her from police custody and the two women take to the road, eventually finding sanctuary with August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters May (Sophie Okenodo) and June (Alicia Keys). Working at the Boatwright honey business starts a healing process that also reveals some unexpected connections to Lily’s late mother.
Gently paced and lyrical, The Secret Life Of Bees makes a concerted assault on the heartstrings. Syrupy voice-over narration provides us with an insight into Lily’s troubled heart. Events unfold in glowing sunshine or bathed in the flow of cathartic tears as we learn more of the surrogate family that Lily has now found or the casual racism that is part of the times-separate entrances for different races at the local cinema, violent attacks that follow attempts to register voters etc.
Dakota Fanning is maturing into a viable teenage star, but her performance veers toward the histrionic and over-stated. That may also be a reflection of the fact that the story of the three Boatwright sisters and their struggles is much more interesting than the more obvious journey undertaken by Lily. Queen Latifah is at her most dignified and schoolmarmish as August, Alicia Keys once again reveals a commanding screen presence as the wary, fiercely independent June and Sophie Okonedo brings a touching vulnerability to the damaged May. Individually and collectively, they provide a number of moving moments that lend true heart to a film that often veers too enthusiastically towards the sappy.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight/Fox International
Lauren Shuler Sonner
Gina Prince-Bythewood based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd