The main thing I learned from “The Secret Life of Bees” is that forcing your disobedient daughter to kneel down, barelegged, on a pile of uncooked grits is mean and painful.
But obscure punishments enacted by abusive Southerners are not the main point of “The Secret Life of Bees.” Surely the only reason I would start my review with it is that the film doesn’t really offer much else to talk about.
Directed and adapted by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who made the well-liked “Love and Basketball” several years ago, “Secret Life” falls under the category of Well-Meaning Movies That Were Probably Much Better As Books. In Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, the home-fried, honey-flavored tale of a lonely white girl finding refuge in a black family of beekeepers in South Carolina in 1964 probably seems less precious and more realistic than it does in Prince-Bythewood’s shiny, gauzy version.
Lemme break it down for you one time. Fourteen-year-old Lily (Dakota Fanning) flees her abusive, unloving father (Paul Bettany) and takes the housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), a young woman who’s been Lily’s surrogate mom, with her. They head to a town that Lily knows her mother (who died when Lily was 4) once had a connection to, and are struck by a display of locally made honey called Black Madonna. A black Virgin Mary? On a jar of honey? What is up with THAT?
Feeling spiritually drawn, Lily and Rosaleen visit the family that makes the honey. (Well, the bees make it. The family puts it in bottles.) These are the Boatwrights, consisting of three sisters: motherly August (Queen Latifah), no-nonsense June (Alicia Keys), and simple-minded May (Sophie Okonedo).
August, June, and May? Shouldn’t there be an April too?!!
Well, there was an April, and she died. There, don’t you feel like a jerk now?
August welcomes Lily and Rosaleen to stay with them as long as necessary, putting them to work with the beekeeping and honey-jarring. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Acts has just been passed, and racial tensions in this small, dusty town are running high. Lily’s friendship with August’s godson, Zach (Tristan Wilds), is problematic. Et cetera.
Hey! Did you know that you can learn a lot about life in general simply by observing the rules of beekeeping? Did you also know that beehives can be symbolic of other things, forming the basis of plainly spoken platitudes and folk wisdom? It’s true!
The actors are all earnest and committed, except maybe for Paul Bettany, who quite rightly doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing in this movie. Sophie Okonedo is stuck in a thankless part, i.e., the smiling simpleton, but she does what she can. More notable is Alicia Keys, who adds the right amount of frostiness to balance Queen Latifah’s open, lovable performance as August. In addition, Jennifer Hudson, breaking out of her “Dreamgirls” diva persona, shows more range than I thought she had.
Dakota Fanning, who is the same age as her character, continues to give phenomenal performances even in mediocre films. She has a couple of scenes here, related to Lily’s life of feeling unloved, that show her reach as an actress. That being said, shouldn’t a movie about a young girl who’s never felt loved be more emotionally stirring than this one is? That ought to be a slam-dunk, but the most you get here is a mild sensation of warmth in the general area of your heart.
C+ (1 hr., 50 min.; )