Secret Life of Bees, The (2008): Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Coming of Age Tale, Starring Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson

As adapted to the screen and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Secret Life of Bees is a solemn, old-fashioned coming-of-age tale, set against a crucial era, the Civil War movement of the 1960s. For better or worse, in many segments, the film feels as if it were made in the era in which the saga takes place.

Based upon the 2002 award-winning novel of the same title by Sue Monk Kidd, the movie is too earnest and didactic, almost taking the edge out of the book, as if fearful of offending audiences with any strong idea or image. Hence, fans of the book might be disappointed with “Secret Life of Bees” as a visual experience.

The film’s best thing is its female-driven ensemble, headed by Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo. The fact that most of these women are black, or belong to other ethnic minorities, makes it a double cause for celebration as, despite talk of progress, there still are not many solid roles in Hollywood or indiewood for women in color.

Like most coming-of-age fables, the aptly titled “Secret Life of Bees” centers on the efforts of one young insecure girl, who’s unsure whether she’s loveable, to find self-worth, while searching for a meaningful familial bond. The movie tells a touching story, propagating all the “right” values and “universal” messages: The need for love and for camaraderie, the wish for redemption, above all the search of community, based on the undeniable need to belong.

For her yarn, Prince-Bythewood adopts the paradigm of the outsider, a figure that’s like a fish out of water, whose presence affects–and is affected by–every member of the community. Here the outsider is a young, white orphan girl, nicely played by Dakota Fanning, the gifted and versatile child-actress. Fanning was wrongly blamed by some critics for the dreadful, scandalous Sundance rape film, Hounddog.

The South Carolina home of the intelligent, independent and opinionated honey-making Boatwright sisters is thrust into chaos and upheaval with the arrival of the fourteen year-old Lily Owens (Fanning) and her caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). Facing the unexpected comforts, grace and deep-rooted spirituality Lily in her encounters at the Boatwright home, Lily gradually forms a maternal bond with each of these women whose unique gifts help reconcile the loss of her dead mother. Through the strength and empowerment that embodies the Boatwright sisters, Lily ultimately comes to the realization that sometimes you must leave one home in order to find another, more meaningful, one. Indeed, after fleeing to Tiburon, South Carolina, a mysterious place with strong connection to Lily’s mother, the two women find shelter and solace at the Boatwright household.

The social context for the tale is quite interesting, though Prince-Bythewood doesn’t fully exploit it, as it remains sort of external social background; ditto for the politics of the Civil Rights movement, which remain vague and remote.

Owning and operating a successful bee farm and honey-making business, August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) is the family matriarch running the household with a firm but loving hand with her two sisters, the fiercely independent music teacher June (Alicia Keys), and the more innocent and childlike May (Sophie Okonedo). (It’s almost a convention these days that, if a film or a play is about sisters, there will be three of them; three seems to be the magical number).

Lily remembers her mother (Hilarie Burton) in her dreams, and her relationship with her embittered and widowed father Owen (Paul Bettany) leaves much to be desired. The good chapters describe how Lily is immediately taken under the wing of August Boatwright as the new beekeeping apprentice, given a comfortable place to explore and, for the first time in her life, just be herself, with no outside pressures, social or psychological.

In due course, Lily discovers joy in the simple pleasures of life through her deepening and varying relationships with the Boatwright sisters. Gradually, she comes into her own, determined to enjoy the sweet nectar of life for the first time. As a budding youngster, Lily unexpectedly finds her true home and a family she has always yearned for.

The femme-driven yarn has only a few male figures. Tristan Wilds stars as August’s godson and Lily’s newfound friend, Zachary (Lincoln Taylor), a hardworking teenager who dreams of becoming a lawyer. And Nate Parker is cast as Neil, a young man in love with the marriage- resistant June Boatwright.

Prince-Bythewood tackles kindly and gracefully, if not sharply and boldly, the challenges of a period film with a multi-racial cast set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. The director previously made the far more impressive “Love & Basketball,” for New Line, which she also wrote, and then the HBO film “Disappearing Acts,” which was well acted by Sanaa Lathan and Wesley Snipes.

In this picture, she does an OK but not spectacular job, stumbling when she goes out of her way to transfer the book’s lyricism onto the big screen, but instead offers just beautiful and familiar images, courtesy of cinematographer Rogier Stoffers (who previously shot Richard Linklater’s smash hit “School of Rock”).

The hopeful, universal themes of the film, which received its world premiere at the Toronto Film Fest (in Gala Presentations) to mixed critical response, may resonate with either very young girls or older female moviegoers, stressing the importance of having a family, and the ability to find love and friendship in the most unlikely places.

Cast

August Boatwright – Queen Latifah
Lily Owens – Dakota Fanning
Rosaleen Daise – Jennifer Hudson
June Boatwright – Alicia Keyes
May Boatwright – Sophie Okonedo
Neil – Nate Parker
Zach Taylor – Tristan Wilds
Deborah Owens – Hilarie Burton
Owens – Paul Bettany

Credits

A Fox Searchlight release and presentation of an Overbrook Entertainment/Donners’ Co. production. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, James Lassiter, Will Smith, Joe Pichirallo.
Executive producer, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Co-producers: Ed Cathell III, Ewan Leslie.
Directed, written by Gina Prince-Bythewood, based on novel by Sue Monk Kidd.
Camera: Rogier Stoffers.
Editor, Terilyn A. Shropshire.
Music: Mark Isham; music supervisor, Linda Cohen.
Production designer: Warren Alan Young.
Art directors: William G. Davis, Alan Hook.
Set designer: Alex McCarroll; set decorator, James Edward Ferrell Jr.
Costume designer: Sandra Hernandez.
Sound, Carl S. Rudisill; sound designer/supervisor, Jay Nierenberg; re-recording mixers, Marc Fishman, Tony Lamberti, Matthew Iadarola.
Visual effects supervisor: Jamie Dixon; visual effects, Hammerhead Prods., Lola VFX, Pixel Magic.
Stunt coordinator: Dean Mumford.
Casting: Aisha Coley, Lisa Mae, Craig Fincannon, Mark Fincannon.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 109 Minutes.

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