The Secret Life of Bees
The Secret Life of Bees isn’t a very good movie, but it’s almost impossible not to like it, in a pat-on-the-head, half-patronizing kind of way. It appears to have its heart in the right place, even if its head never quite clears out the fog of good intentions. And it seems to have been a labor of love for all concerned, even if it’s the kind of love that smothers.
Dakota Fanning plays Lily Owens, a 14-year-old girl in the segregated South of 1964. The first thing she tells us is startling. It comes after a scene in which we cower with 4-year-old Lily in a closet while her parents scuffle in the room nearby. We hear muttered threats and pleas, see the two forms through the shadows of dangling clothes, see a gun clatter to the floor, see Lily’s tiny hand reach for it.
Quick cut to 10 years later. Lily is still cowering, this time in bed, and she says in voice-over narration, matter-of-factly, “I killed my mama when I was 4 years old.” (In Sue Monk Kidd’s original novel, the news is more elliptical; she says only that her mother died, and that whenever the subject came up, “some caring soul” would tell her it wasn’t her fault.)
Now Lily lives with her father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), a seething pile of walking meanness who punishes her by making her kneel in a pile of dry corn grits until her knees are bloody, and Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), a young African-American woman who serves as a sort of housekeeper and surrogate mother for Lily. Meanwhile, Lily clings to souvenirs of the mother she barely remembers: a snapshot marked Tiburon, S.C., and an iconic picture of a black woman wreathed in a gold halo.
When Rosaleen gets “uppity” with some local racists and is beaten and arrested to remind her of her place, Lily strikes a small blow for justice. She smuggles Rosaleen out of the hospital ward where she is being held prisoner, and the two fugitives hit the road. Somehow, that old snapshot suggests to Lily that her mother, however briefly, once felt safe and happy in Tiburon, so that’s where she wants to go. Rosaleen, out of a mix of gratitude and maternal concern, goes with her.
In Tiburon, Lily learns the meaning of the other picture—it’s a label for Black Madonna Honey, the product of a local woman named August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), who lives on the outskirts of town with her sisters, the cynical but sensitive June (Alicia Keys) and the simple but sensitive May (Sophie Okonedo). Rounding out the characters on hand are Neil (Nate Parker), a persistent suitor to the cold-shouldering June, and Zach Taylor (Tristan Wilds), August’s apprentice, whose friendship with Lily reaches a level that, in that time and place, can be unhealthy.
The theme of Kidd’s novel, and of writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s script, is how Lily, groping hesitantly for some sense of her mother, finds herself joining a whole new family more deeply and fully than she ever expected. There’s a warmth and sweetness to the idea that’s disarming, and it can make you feel churlish to pick it to pieces, but there’s also something mechanical about all the pastoral niceness that doesn’t ring entirely true, however much we wish it would.
There’s something forced about the movie’s dreaminess, as forced as the whimsy of the sisters’ month names and the hot-pink paint job on their house. Plot points are arbitrarily dropped once they’ve served their purpose and Prince-Bythewood (or Kidd) wants to move on. A runaway teenager and a fugitive from Jim Crow (in)justice raises not a ripple of concern among police or sheriffs—apparently, that was just a device to get our girls on the road. June dislikes and resents Lily and Rosaleen—until she doesn’t. T. Ray has no idea where Lily has gone—until he does. When he shows up at the door, he’s hateful and menacing—until he isn’t.
Through it all, Prince-Bythewood directs as if she’s so afraid of tipping over into melodrama that she forgets to instill any drama at all. Everyone walks around with careful, quiet steps, speaking in hushed tones as if they were in a library—or as if Prince-Bythewood were calling for a group hug before every shot and reminding everyone not to disturb the beautiful mood she was working to create.