In an effort to try and lure women into the multiplexes, subpar movies featuring women seemingly have come out en masse in the past several years. 2008s best feature aimed at women involved Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning in The Secret Life of Bees.
Fanning is Lily, a 14 year old in a broken home in the Civil Rights-era South. 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 mothers 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 films plot is a bit flimsy at times. Its the films main drawback, as it focuses more of character development at times than moving the film forward, but this isnt a directors film. Its an actors film, and Gina Prince-Bythewood doesnt do a ton of story-telling from the cameras 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. Its 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. Itll 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. Its a powerful but subdued performance, as August is a remarkable woman and Latifah plays her well. She isnt a flashy or fancy woman; shes just doing the best she can and trying to maintain her family in spite of the turmoil of the era. Shes filled with a lot of love and trust, wanting everyone around to feel welcome.
Its an interesting juxtaposition against Fannings Lily, still a girl but having to act like a woman in most aspects of her life. Fanning gives a terrific performance, which isnt surprising considering her status as the best child actor in some time, and sooner or later she’s bound to be nominated for an Academy Award. Shes at the same age (14) that Jodie Foster was when she earned her first (for Taxi Driver) and her career has eerily mirrored Fosters. Its 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 films supporting cast is solid as well, but one of the films biggest missteps is in how it handles Jennifer Hudson. Shes relegated to the sidelines for the most part. Most of her role couldve been done by a lower level actress or an unknown, as its a waste of her talent and stature in a relatively minimal role. She does wonderful with what little shes given, but for status its almost criminal that shes used sparingly.
The Secret Life of Bees is an interesting character study that showcases one of the better mostly female casts of the past several years.
Presented in a Dolby Digital surround with a widescreen presentation, the film has a great transfer. A low budget film, it doesnt look like it as the transfer is flawless.
There are two Commentary tracks. The first involves Prince-Bythewood, Producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Joe Pichirallo, Fanning and Latifah. The second involves the director and Editor Terilyn Shropshire.
There are eight Deleted Scenes, all rough and unfinished, are included but dont add much back into the film.
The Women and Men of The Secret Life of Bees is an extended EPK, running 20 minutes and not providing anything of note.
Adaptation: Bringing The Secret Life of Bees to the Big Screen is a brief history of how the film came to be. Based off a book of the same name, it was a lengthy process to get the film made. Its a bit more interesting, as Sue Monk Kidd tells a lot about the film and Prince-Bythewood comes in and intones as well.
Inside the Pink house with Sue Monk Kidd focuses on Kidd touring the set.
Life on the set is a behind the scenes look at the film, offering a couple nuggets about the film-making process.
There is also a brief feature focusing on the films World Premiere.
Trailers for Nobel Son, The List, Australia and Mamma I Want to Sing are included.
In terms of extras, The Secret Life of Bees has plenty of them but theyre rather weak. The film itself is strong enough to recommend for a rental, but not strong enough for a purchase unless youre a big fan of the film or book.
Fox Searchlight presents The Secret Life of Bees. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Starring Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Dakota Fanning. Written by Sue Monk Kidd and Gina Prince-Bythewood. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD: 2.3.2009. Available at Amazon.