The Secret Life of Bees – Review

Strong portrayals make for a moving picture

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Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Notable Cast:
Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Hilarie Burton, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany, Nate Parker

In a year where subpar movies featuring women seemingly came out en masse, with Sex in the City ruling the roost as one of the few “event” movies of the summer aimed at aimed directly, the year’s best features Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning in the South (Civil Rights era) in The Secret Life of Bees.

Fanning is Lily, a 14 year old in a broken home. Her father T-Ray (Paul Bettany) runs a peach farm and her mother is long dead. Taking the opportunity to run away, she enlists her nanny (Jennifer Hudson) to find herself and her mother’s origins in the home of the sisters Boatwright. August (Queen Latifah) owns the estate and runs a highly successful honey business. June (Alicia Keys) is a talented musician, civil rights activist and teacher in an on again, off again relationship with Neil (Nate Parker). April (Sophia Okonedo) runs the household for August, responsible for the cooking and cleaning. Working on the farm, Lily finds herself feeling loved for the first time and the member of a family.

This is a film more about character arcs than story, as the film’s plot is a bit flimsy at times. It’s the film’s main drawback, as it focuses more of character development at times than moving the film forward, but this isn’t a director’s film. It’s an actor’s film, and Gina Prince-Bythewood doesn’t do a ton of story-telling from the camera’s perspective. Mainly she lets her actors move the film forward with their interactions, using a slow pace and letting the film have a more natural progression to it. It’s a smart move, as this is a story of characters and needs a delicate touch to it. Prince-Bythewood does it well, leaving some awkwardness moments in first and last 10 minutes of the film that are quite noticeable given the tone of everything between them. But the key is that she brings out some wonderful performances from Latifah and Fanning. It’ll be hard to argue against them.

Latifah has always been the sort of actress that meshes well in seemingly any cast, from Chicago to Barbershop, and in Bees she holds the film together by sheer force of will. It’s a powerful but subdued performance, as August is a remarkable woman and Latifah plays her well. She isn’t a flashy or fancy woman; she’s just doing the best she can and trying to maintain her family in spite of the turmoil of the era. She’s filled with a lot of love and trust, wanting everyone around to feel welcome.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition against Fanning’s Lily, still a girl but having to act like a woman in most aspects of her life. Fanning gives a terrific performance, which isn’t surprising considering her status as the best child actor in some time, and it might be the role that earns her an Academy Award nomination. She’s at the same age (14) that Jodie Foster was when she earned her first (for Taxi Driver) and her career has eerily mirrored Foster’s. It’s the same type of performance, as well, as Fanning is eerily reminiscent of Foster in terms of her interactions with her older counterparts. She holds her own amongst them, not standing out as a good child actor but as a good actor.

The film’s supporting cast is solid as well, but one of the film’s biggest missteps is in how it handles Jennifer Hudson. Coming off a year where she was the lone bright spot in Sex and the City and earlier won an Oscar, she’s relegated to the sidelines for the most part. Most of her role could’ve been done by a lower level actress or an unknown, as it’s a waste of her talent and stature in a relatively minimal role. She does wonderful with what little she’s given, but for status it’s almost criminal that she’s used sparingly.

The Secret Life of Bees is an early candidate for any sort of awards buzz, and rightly so. It’s an interesting character study that showcases one of the better mostly female casts of the year.


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