The Secret Life of Bees (PG-13)
Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown
This film's inspiration, Sue Monk Kidd's 2002 best-seller, The Secret Life of Bees? Not a big fan. Maybe it's a gender thing, what with its emphasis on matriarchy and a girl's adolescence. Maybe I didn't find Kidd's voice as compelling as the story she told. Or maybe it's my aversion to a certain strain of fiction by white authors set in the segregated South vaguely guilty yet still nostalgic, ugly realities smothered in Fried Green Tomatoes sauce.
Gina Prince-Bythewood the African-American director of the under-appreciated Love and Basketball would seem a likely candidate for tweaking the latter problem. Instead, she has opted to stick close to the source material. Those who swear Kidd's novel is a modern classic should be delighted. Those who weren't as impressed? Well ...
Prince-Bythewood immediately flashes back to the event that defines 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) in 1964 Georgia: the memory that she accidentally shot and killed her mother 10 years earlier. Her relationship with her father T. Ray (Paul Bettany) makes Lily ready to flee, especially when her family's housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) faces repercussions for insulting a white man in town. The two hitchhike to South Carolina, where they find the beekeeping operation of the Boatwright sisters: August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo).
It's there that Lily learns many life lessons over the summer, in the tradition of coming-of-age stories. She finds herself attracted to the young black hired hand, Zach (Tristan Wilds), in a "first love that dare not cross miscegenation laws." She hears the story of the "Black Madonna" that gives the Boatwrights' honey its name, and defines their twist on Christianity. And yes, eventually she discovers the secrets of her mother's heretofore mysterious life.
It's all shot by Rogier Stoffers with a rapturous golden glow, the land itself seemingly bathed in honey. It's a cue as certain as Mark Isham's score that while, yes, there may be tragedies and hardships along the way, nothing too unsettling will happen.
That's what makes this kind of glorified TV-movie so frustrating: You know it's never going to dig at anything. The film does show (discreetly) the arbitrary violence against Southern blacks, but there's little pretense that The Secret Life of Bees is more than a pep rally for female strength. Kidd and Prince-Bythewood both seem more wrapped up in the challenges of women in a man's world than blacks in a white world oh, to be like bees, where the queen rules! In so doing, the film creates an awkward equivalency between Lily's teenage travails and the fight for survival faced by her black surrogate mothers.
It would feel better to smack around The Secret Life of Bees if it weren't so well-crafted in other ways. Okonedo turns in a particularly effective performance in a challenging role, and Bettany's more generous with T. Ray than Kidd was. Plus, Prince-Bythewood's script manages to hit every crucial plot point from the novel without ever feeling overcrowded.
The only question, then, is whether the source material might benefit from a freer hand. Clearly there are thousands who think The Secret Life of Bees is just fine, thank you, the way it is, and they're likely to embrace this highly polished adaptation along with it. For them, there's no reason to lament a second helping of exactly the same.