A movie designed to give audiences - specifically women - the quintessential "good cry," The Secret Life of Bees springs from the same home-cooked, heartwarming, bittersweet, girl-power primordial ooze that produced genre classics like Fried Green Tomatoes and The Color Purple. Dakota Fanning stars as Lily Owens, a 14-year-old living in a small Southern...read more
A movie designed to give audiences - specifically women - the quintessential "good cry," The Secret Life of Bees springs from the same home-cooked, heartwarming, bittersweet, girl-power primordial ooze that produced genre classics like Fried Green Tomatoes and The Color Purple. Dakota Fanning stars as Lily Owens, a 14-year-old living in a small Southern town, who is haunted by the guilt of accidentally shooting her mother when she was a little girl. When her emotionally distant father (Paul Bettany) goes one step too far during a fight, she sets off with their black maid (Jennifer Hudson) - who recently tried to take advantage of the just passed Civil Rights Bill, but was beaten by a mob for registering to vote - for the place where the one picture Lily has of her mom was taken. Once there, under the guidance of wise beekeeper August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters - the high-strung May (Sophie Okonedo) and the analytical June (Alicia Keys) - Lily learns valuable life lessons about making honey, racial tolerance, and the healing powers of love.
This is the kind of movie that shows how the bonds of family and sisterhood can help anyone survive even the most horrible of life's tragedies - racism, survivor's guilt, and domestic abuse chief among them. The film maintains a relaxed feel, which fortunately keeps the entire endeavor from slipping into melodrama. Queen Latifah holds the screen like the star she is; very few performers can sell dialogue this sappy, but her artful underplaying sets the right tone for the other performers. She meshes well with Dakota Fanning, whose great gift to this point in her career has been a preternatural maturity. Her roles have largely consisted of children who are much wiser than their years, and her seemingly innate self-possession has allowed her to shine in this regard. Her character here is more of a stretch; while Lily is still more intelligent and composed than you might expect a girl her age to be, she still doesn't have all the answers. When she becomes involved in a tentative romance with a black boy, Fanning aptly communicates the joy she feels discovering something new about herself. This performance indicates Fanning may actually be able to weather what most people refer to as "the awkward stage" for kid actors in adolescence.
Subject matter this emotional requires the actors and the filmmakers to walk a very fine line; a single ounce of cynicism aimed at either the super-emotional material, or the audience - who want such a ceaseless barrage of heightened feelings - will bury tearjerkers like this one. Thankfully, director Gina Prince-Bythewood seems to possess genuine affection for her characters: they are photographed lovingly, and while the film is by no means strong enough to change the mind of anyone whose instincts are to run screaming from such relentless expressions of emotion, it should more than satisfy those who want to laugh through tears. Luckily, everybody involved in The Secret Life of Bees approached their work like craftsmen, and the final result is a bittersweet product closer to honey than treacle.
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