The Secret Life of Bees
Some movies start under such a heavy burden, they struggle to get out from under. The Secret Life Of Bees boasts much more than an unwieldy title. We’ve got Dakota Fanning as a southern waif, Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson in the same movie, Paul Bettany doing a mean South Carolina accent, Alicia Keyes taking on the struggle for civil rights, and before we’ve even settled into our seats we’re treated to the central trauma in Dakota’s life: the day she accidentally shot her mom.
Ten years later, Lily (Fanning) is turning 14 and living with the consequences: Namely, an abusive father (Bettany) who makes her kneel on grits when she’s been bad. As if that wasn’t enough to cope with, Lily’s best friend is Rosaleen (Hudson), the home help. The Owens are only a peach orchard up from poor white trash, but this is 1964, so that’s enough to keep Rosaleen in her place.
Trying to register to vote for the first time, the servant is brutally beaten on the street corner, with threats of worse to come. Lily rescues her from hospital and they set off on the road together. Lily’s only plan, to try to find someone who might have known her mom. Her only clue: the label of a bottle of honey featuring a black Madonna…
Written and directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood (Love And Basketball) from Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life of Bees improves when the runaways land on the doorstep of the Boatwright household. Here in a home the colour of Pepto-Bismol they find the kind of love and support Lily has never known. August (Queen Latifah) takes her under her wing and inducts her into the mysteries of honey farming. August’s brainy sister June (Keys) is more skeptical, but grudgingly accepts the interlopers. May (Sophie Okonedo) is all heart, and a little bit funny in the head.
The Boatwrights may be a bit too hospitable to be true, but it’s good to see a warm, generous movie about people helping each other out. Prince-Blythewood doesn’t turn a blind eye to the segregation and racism in the background – in fact it intrudes on the house in the cruelest manner – but she finds hope in Lily’s instinctive colour-blindness, and in the sisters’ faith and resilience.
For Fanning, one of the better child actors around, this is a tentative coming of age movie. Lily is definitely curious about boys, but she doesn’t go any further than a (very romantic) smooch. She’s also a lonely, vulnerable child, and plucky, and a resourceful liar. Fanning lets us believe every minute of it.
Okonedo is also convincing in the tricky role of May, so sensitive that the only way she can cope with the suffering she encounters in the world is to scribble down a little prayer and stick the note in a wall in the garden – “The Wailing Wall”, her sister’s call it. She carries around a little notebook at all times just in case…
Touching and heartfelt, the movie has the measure of this almost saintly virtue on the one hand, and the real evil of racism on the other, and it tacks markedly towards the former. That may make it too soft for some tastes, but it would be a shame not to let it take you there.
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