Fox // 2008 // 110 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 12th, 2009
Bring your sisters, girlfriends, mothers, and daughters.
"Mary, give me strength."
Fourteen-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning, Charlotte's Web) has not had an easy life. When she was only 4 years old, she accidentally killed her mother with her father's pistol. Ever since, her father (Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind) has treated her rather badly. He ignores her, punishes her severely for offenses she did not commit, and refuses to offer her kindness or encouragement. Fortunately, Lily does one have one friend: the family maid, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls). In many ways, Rosaleen has been like a big sister to Lily, watching out for her and taking care of her when times get tough.
Our story begins on the day that the Civil Rights Act is passed. Rosaleen hears the news and gets very excited. She decides that she's going to try to go into town to register to vote and takes Lily along with her. On the way into town, Rosaleen is harassed and beaten by a group of nasty rednecks. Rosaleen is taken to the hospital, and Lily is taken back home. Outraged by what she has witnessed and angry at the way her father has treated her, Lily determines that she and Rosaleen are going to find a better place to live. She runs off, goes to the hospital to get Rosaleen, and hitchhikes all the way across the state of South Carolina.
At long last, Lily and Rosaleen find a place to stay. They are given room and board by the Boatwright sisters, three African-American women who own a large farm. They raise bees and sell honey for a living. The oldest of the Boatwright sisters is August (Queen Latifah, Chicago), who is kind, wise, and understanding. Right behind her is June (Alicia Keys, Smokin' Aces), a strong-willed and politically active woman who who is rather hesitant about bringing strangers into the home. Finally, we meet the gentle May (Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda), a very sensitive and easily-wounded woman who seems to carry the weight of the world on her back. These three special women befriend Rosaleen and Lily and eventually offer to give them a permanent home. How long will it be before the past catches up with Lily and Rosaleen?
Let's get one thing clear: Sue Monk Kidd's novel The Secret Life of Bees (and by extension, this film) is a fairy tale. It is most assuredly not a realistic portrayal of the rural south during the 1960s, despite the many historical references sprinkled throughout the film. The Secret Life of Bees may not be factual, but it is honest and truthful. The feelings, ideas, and emotions of the era are successfully captured, and are presented in a larger-than-life manner that some have taken offense to. Pete Vonder Haar indicated that the film is "impossible to swallow." M.E. Russell angrily states that the film is about, "a bunch of powerful African-American women (who) get their lives upended and in some cases destroyed so a little white girl can feel better about herself."
I feel that these points are rather unfair, and that some reviewers have missed the low-key complexity of the film hiding beneath the rather typical sentimentality. On the surface, The Secret Life of Bees may seem like another film about noble African-Americans going to great lengths to help some troubled yet good-natured white person. Take a closer look at the film, and you'll find that there are many nuances. The complicated messiness of interracial relationships during the 1960s is examined to heartbreaking effect. Yes, when Lily enters the lives of these three African-American women, she unintentionally sets off a series of tragic events (An example: Lily goes to the theatre with a young man who works for the sisters, and the young man is beaten for sitting next to a white girl). However, Lily's need to "feel better about herself," is hardly superficial or trite.
We are told that when Lily was a child, she accidentally caused the death of her own mother. She has carried around this burden for years, and the knowledge of it crushes her on the inside. Later on, the simple fact that Lily is a white girl causes serious problems for other people. Remove the politics for a moment and just consider the emotional core of this situation. A young girl is frightened, confused, and intensely self-loathing. The evidence in front of her seems to indicate that she is some sort of toxic human being who will automatically destroy everyone around simply by entering their lives. These three women do not offer themselves as sacrificial lambs in the service of this confused kid, but rather kindly offer to share their secrets of strength and courage with her.
The film certainly has a generous portion of soppy moments, but I was moved by it nonetheless. Even when the screenplay pushes a little hard, the characters remain utterly human and believable. Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys are both playing roles that could have turned into opposing stereotypes (benevolent angel and harsh feminist, respectively), but both actresses transcend their given personality types to become real human beings. Their success in business may be more symbolic than realistic given the nature of the historical era they are living in, but these talented actresses refuse to allow the characters to become mere symbols. Sophie Onokedo shows a new side of her talent as the troubled May. She's not a stereotypical character, but a challenging one, and Onokedo never gives us reason to doubt her behavior. Young Dakota Fanning demonstrates a greater level of maturity and complexity than I have seen from the young actress, indicating that she will not become just another has-been child actor. Even the obligatory abusive racist redneck alcoholic manages to avoid being entirely one-dimensional, as Paul Bettany gives us a hint of the brokenness and pain that drives the character's hateful behavior.
The hi-def transfer is simply superb, beautifully capturing the lush South Carolina scenery. Blacks are very deep and rich, and during certain scenes the image nearly seems to leap off the screen. There aren't many images that will astonish you in The Secret Life of Bees, but the film is consistently sharp and visually absorbing throughout. Background detail and facial detail are both superb. My only concern is with some of the actual cinematography, which oddly seems to have trouble maintaining a steady focus during certain scenes (perhaps intentional, though it didn't seem that way). The audio is very solid, with a charming Mark Isham score receiving a very rich and well-distributed mix. Dialogue is crystal-clear, and the sound design subtly supports the film very effectively without ever becoming distracting.
The disc is really loaded with special features, too. You get not one but two audio commentaries: the first features writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, and producers Lauren Shuler Donner & Joe Pichirallo, while the second features Prince-Bythewood and editor Terilyn Shropshire. The former is very pleasant and engaging, while the second offers more in terms of straightforward behind-the-scenes info. Both are active and very listenable. There are also six featurettes: "Adaptation: Bringing the Secret Life of Bees to the Big Screen," "The Women and Men of the Secret Life of Bees," "Inside the Pink House with Sue Monk Kidd," "Life on the Set," "The World Premiere," and "Beekeeping 101" (a Blu-ray exclusive). The titles are fairly self-explanatory, and they run 7-12 minutes each. You also get ten minutes of deleted scenes. Finally, you have the option to watch the 109-minute theatrical version or the 113-minute extended cut.
Though I took no issue with the complaints of historical inaccuracy mentioned earlier, there are indeed a handful of problems with the film. First, The Secret Life of Bees opens with narration from Fanning. I'm of the persuasion that the majority of movie narration is entirely unnecessary, and this is no exception. Fanning spells out the obvious during scenes that would have been touching in a rather understated way. We don't need to be told what the characters are feeling at all times. Additionally, there are several montages featuring anachronistic light pop songs that really do damage the period feel of the film. I suppose that the "fairy tale" elements of the movie do technically permit a bit more liberty on the musical side of things, but it would have been better if they had filled these sections with score selections from Isham. Also, the talented Jennifer Hudson is given a couple of scenes early on, but is thrown into the background and given absolutely nothing interesting to do for the vast duration of the film. Folks, it's going to be hard for Ms. Hudson to recapture that Dreamgirls level of success if you're not going to give her a substantial part.
One other item I'd like to note...not a complaint, just a word of caution for parents. The PG-13 rating should be taken seriously. Despite the warm, fuzzy, family-film vibe that the ad campaign offered (not to mention the presence of child star Dakota Fanning), this film may be too traumatizing for some pre-teen viewers. The violent scenes here are infrequent, but when they appear they are rather graphic and disturbing. Parents should use discernment as to whether The Secret Life of Bees will be too disturbing for young members of the family.
A thoughtful and touching story featuring superb performances gets a great hi-def release. This disc is definitely worth checking out.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes