October 27, 2008

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Bees

thesecretlifeofbees1_largeThe Secret Life of Bees is a film that received a strong amount of positive buzz leading up to its release. It is an adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling 2002 novel of the same name, adapted by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Despite the positive reviews and good word of mouth surrounding the release, I cannot say I felt a strong desire to see it. Sure, I put it ahead of the likes of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, but I guess that really doesn't say much. As fate would have it, an opening appeared in my busy schedule and I found myself with an opportunity to travel down my "to be seen" list and settled on spending some time learning about this supposed life that the bees keep secret. As it turns out, I am glad I made the trip. No, it is not perfect, but it is a strong and affecting feature.

It is a tale set in the South of 1964 against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. It is not a story that comes across as terribly realistic, but that is not a problem as what it lacks in a realism it makes up with be feeling genuine. What I mean by that is the story feels real. This is essentially a coming of story told in a parable form rather than attempting to create an realistic portrayal of the era.

While 1964 is where there bulk of the tale takes place, it begins ten years earlier. It is a fuzzy scene that is told from the perspective of a four-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning). We see her father come in and catch her mother packing things, a gun is drawn by her mother and promptly dropped. The young girl picks up the gun and accidentally shoots her mother dead. It is a tragic event that leaves many questions and pained memories as she grows older.

Ten years later we pick up the story of Lily as she struggles with not knowing anything about her mother or why she left, not to mention her cruel father (Paul Bettany). Her only friend is the housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). Rosaleen puts up with Lily's father because she will not abandon the young girl. Everything comes to a head one night when Lily is out among the rows of peach trees (the business the family is in) in an attempt to feel closer to the mother she never knew through a few items she had secreted away. Her father finds her, misunderstands the situation and punishes her. The next day Lily and Rosaleen two travel to the nearby town so that Rosaleen can register to vote under the new Civil Rights Act. However, before they can get there, they are accosted by a group of racists who brutally beat Rosaleen, resulting in her (yes, her) arrest.

These events prove to be too much. Lily sneaks Rosaleen out of her guarded hospital room and the two leave, heading towards the town of Tiburon. It is a name gotten from the back of a picture found among her mother's things. The journey leads them to the doorstep of August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters, the activist June (Alicia Keys), and the simple and sensitive May (Sophie Okonedo). It is here with the motherly trio that Lily feels see belongs, using the time to learn about the honey business run by the three women, not to mention feeling strangely closer to her mother.

The majority of the story is told here, with both Lily and Rosaleen learning that there is more to the world than what they experienced. The world is opened up through the motherly kindness of August, the passionate activism of June, and the sensitive May. These three women have much to offer the newly expanded worldview of Lily and Rosaleen.

Much happens in the middle portion of the film as events happen that prove reshape their lives. Revelations are made, lessons are learned, and honey is made, all with the backdrop of racism and civil rights playing around the edges.To tell all that happens through this would be the same as robbing the film of its effect, so I am not going to do that. However, I will say that while the world at large is kept outside the Boatwright community, it does have a lasting impact on the lives of everyone here and cannot be kept out indefinitely as the outside finds Lily as we approach the conclusion.

What really makes this movie click is the acting. The majority of the performances are quite strong, drawing you in to their story. Dakota Fanning was the star of the show. I always thought she was a good actress and was interested in how she would make the transition from child star, this gives us a hint at the possibilities. Yes, she still is young and is playing young roles, but this performance steps away from the cuteness of her earlier roles as she offers something a bit deeper and more nuanced. She has been compared to a young Jodie Foster, but it will be sometime before we see if the comparison is apt. Queen Latifah is the other star of the show, her screen presence and willingness to share the screen is excellent. She dominates the screen while never stealing scenes from her co-stars, she is perfect for the role of the elder matron of the family.

The supporting cast is also quite good. Both Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo turn in fine performances, although it is Okonedo who leaves the biggest impact as she carries the heart of the film on her simple sleeve. Paul Bettany is suitably grimy as the mean father. Then there are Tristan Wilds and Nate Parker who also add further layers to the tale.

I will say that the movie is a little odd in the way that tone shifts through three distinct portions, There is the initial drama with the abusive father, followed by the lengthy middle portion where the bad early feelings go away within the peaceful refuge of the Boatwright's home and honey business, before reality comes crashing back in the conclusion. I was a little thrown by the shifts, but in the end it is a touching film that was more affecting than I was expecting it to be.

Bottomline. This is a movie that lives up to the buzz offering a positive experience. It is supported by strong performances and an adequate (and surprisingly emotional) screenplay. This is a movie to get wrapped up in and go along for the ride.



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