Fox // 2008 // 110 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // February 3rd, 2009
"The bees came the summer of '64, the summer I turned 14 and my whole life went spinning off into a whole new orbit."
The Secret Life of Bees is an adaptation of the coming-of-age novel by Sue Monk Kidd. I've never read it, but my wife has. Films adapted from books are a topic of contention among moviegoers. Studios know they have a built-in audience of people who already enjoyed the book, but those same fans are often the harshest critics. I have good news for the literate: my wife enjoyed this movie. For the most part, so did I.
In 1964 South Carolina, 14-year-old Lily (Dakota Fanning, War of the Worlds) lives with her abusive father (Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind) and the memory of a tragic accident that took her mother away. When their housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls) is severely beaten on her way to register to vote, Lily rescues her and the pair run away. Guided by a scrap of paper left by her mother, they end up at the bright pink house of the Boatwright sisters -- May (Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda), June (Alicia Keys, The Nanny Diaries), and August (Queen Latifah, Last Holiday) -- who run a local honey farm. While Rosaleen bonds with the emotionally fragile May, Lily earns their keep by helping August with the bees. She grows fond of fellow worker Zach (Tristan Wilds, The Wire), a boy who dreams of defying racial expectations by someday becoming a lawyer. But when he and Lily leave the safety of the farm to see a movie together, they get a nasty reminder that the world outside is a dangerous place.
The Secret Life of Bees oozes with symbolism as thick as August's honey. Lily and Rosaleen blossom and grow like their namesake flowers -- flowers like the ones that attract the bees kept by sisters named for the spring and summer months when bees are most productive. As for those title insects -- so resourceful, industrious, dangerous, and fragile -- bees come to stand in the story for everything from individual characters to the Civil Rights movement itself. Within the safety of their bright pink hive, Lily, Rosaleen, and the Boatwright women live and work in close community. Outside, however, there is danger from angry parents and racist Southerners who'd rather swat than get stung by change. Maternal imagery pops up everywhere, too, underscoring Lily's search for the truth about her mother -- on honey labels, as a carved wooden statue, and in the relationships forged between Lily and her surrogate mothers.
Heavy-handed symbolism can work when a story has hundreds of pages to unfold. Movies don't have that luxury of time. In this case, the layers of metaphor force the audience to spend more time decoding characters than sympathizing with them. The overt symbolism isn't helped by the way characters talk with one another. Every conversation is a life lesson dripping with meaning. If it weren't for impressive performances by the five main actresses, writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood's screenplay adaptation would probably crumble under its own weight.
Last time I checked, Dakota Fanning was a precocious 8-year-old. Apparently she grew up. Though she still has some of the earnestness that plagues child actors, she breaks through from time to time with raw emotion. It can't hurt that she's got a talented quartet of acting role models backing her up. Queen Latifah has proven herself in recent years to be a legitimate acting talent. As the matriarchal August, she gives the film the strong center it needs, allowing fellow musicians Alicia Keys and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson the room to play more conflicted characters. The most difficult role, that of the crumbling May, is played by Sophie Okonedo. Her ability to slide between joy and sorrow is tragically beautiful. It's just too bad she doesn't have more to do in the film.
The Secret Life of Bees is an uplifting tale of empowerment and self-determination, but it treads some well-worn ground. Films set against the backdrop of the struggle for civil rights carry an important message, but they also carry dramatic baggage that makes it hard to evaluate each on their own merit. The same is true of coming-of-age stories. As moving as it is, Bees' story often feels too familiar.
The movie's biggest problem, though, is its pacing. It wants to unfold like a book, but is constrained by the running time of a movie. The action comes in spurts of tension, separated by quiet scenes of domestic life. Without the space afforded by the long format of a book, the story comes across more as a series of events than cohesive narrative. One pivotal scene, especially, comes as more of a shock than it should because there's almost no build-up to it. There is a central story, about a girl coming to terms with losing her mother, but it gets lost in the fragments of subplots leftover from Kidd's novel. I wouldn't want to see any character get less screen time than they already do, but an hour and 50 minutes just isn't enough time for everyone to get the attention they deserve.
As for the DVD transfer, the image tends towards the yellows and browns of period films. The picture looks fine, if a bit soft in places (though that's often the case with non-retail check discs). The audio mix does a nice job with the eclectic soundtrack, and though it stays mostly to the front channels, the rear speakers are put to good use for atmospheric effects.
For those who want to delve deeper, more than an hour of extras expands on just about everything -- including the story of how the novel got adapted, actor and character profiles, eight deleted scenes, a guided tour of the pink house with author Sue Monk Kidd, on-set video diaries, and footage from the world premiere in Toronto. If you want to go even deeper, there's not one but two audio commentaries. Both feature writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood. In the first, she is joined by Fanning, Latifah, and two of the film's producers. The other is a more focused technical making-of discussion between her and the film's editor.
As you're probably thinking, no I'm not this film's target audience. It has a strong female perspective I don't entirely get, and I'm sure my experience would have been different if I'd read the book.
The Secret Life of Bees is a little too sweet for its own good, but as far as book-to-film adaptations go, it manages the tricky job of satisfying those who read the original without confusing those who haven't.
Review content copyright © 2009 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes