I resisted seeing The Secret Life of Bees (Fox Searchlight) at first on the grounds that there's nothing harder to write about than synthetic treacle. But the movie, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood from a best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, is something far rarer: It's authentic treacle. Or, rather, as long as we're using the metaphor of a sticky sweetener here, authentic honey, like the high-quality product harvested by the movie's trio of beekeeping sisters.
Slate V: The critical response to movies opening this weekend.
If the phrase "trio of beekeeping sisters" has already set off your gag reflex, you can stop right here. This movie is exactly as sentimental as it sounds on paper, and it won't convert anyone from cynic to romantic. But if you have a high tolerance for mass-market uplift—if you've ever sniffled your way through a long-distance commercial or been legitimately inspired by a corny platitude—The Secret Life of Bees will do very nicely. It's hard to roll your eyes when they're full of tears.
The film begins in 1964 as Lyndon Johnson has just signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Dakota Fanning plays Lily Owens, a 14-year-old growing up in South Carolina with her abusive father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), and devoted housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). After Rosaleen is beaten by racist thugs on her way to register to vote, she and Lily escape together to a town called Tiburon, where Lily has reason to believe she can learn the truth about her long-dead mother. They're taken in by the aforementioned beekeeping sisters, serene matriarch August (Queen Latifah), nascent activist June (Alicia Keys), and tenderhearted but simple May (Sophie Okonedo).
Are you still with me, or have I lost another contingent with the words serene matriarch and tenderhearted but simple? Monitor your insulin, because there's more to come, including a wholesome romance between Lily and a shy teenager who helps out with the beehives (Tristan Wilds, half a world away from the Baltimore gangbanger he played in The Wire). But I'll still defend this movie against all comers, if only because of the crackerjack chemistry of its ensemble cast. Fanning, who suddenly looks startlingly like the teenage Jodie Foster, may also manage to match Foster's longevity on-screen; she's left her moppet self behind without a second glance. Hudson, as the long-underestimated Rosaleen, telegraphs her character's years of tamped-down resentment with the dry wit of the great Hattie McDaniel.
Then there are the sisters. Alicia Keys, in addition to being a fine songwriter and one of the best-looking human beings alive, can really act. I believed completely in her June Boatwright, a woman so stubbornly independent she can't admit she needs anything or anyone. British stage actress Sophie Okonedo takes what could have been a deadly role—a holy-fool type not far from Tropic Thunder's dreaded "full retard"—and invests her with physical specificity and a complex inner life. Queen Latifah basically just radiates her usual Latifian air of confidence and reassuring warmth, but that's enough. I want her to come over to my house, conduct a motivational seminar, and then help me winnow down my wardrobe.
As a document of Southern race relations in the early '60s, The Secret Life of Bees is about as useful as The Fairy Chronicles. Its multiple conflicts are all resolved too patly, and its dream of a black female utopia could be read as a version of the "magic Negro" narrative. (Mistakenly, I think; unlike, say, the noble African neighbor of In America, these women have complex motivations and real flaws, and the black characters on-screen far outnumber the white.) But if you approach the film as young-adult fare (though neither it nor the book it's based on were marketed as such), its gentle virtues start to shine through. Bees doesn't want to be topical or edgy or explicitly didactic; it's a well-kept beehive of a movie, warm, sweet, and buzzing with life.
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