Mix one part “Huckleberry Finn,” one part “Wizard of Oz” and two parts “To Kill a Mockingbird” – and you have “The Secret Life of Bees,” the honey-colored coming-of-age tale based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd.
It’s not just golden because the central characters are beekeepers who suffer the stings that go with extracting the sweetness from their hives – and from life (get it? Get it?). Rather, director Gina Prince-Bythewood finds a nostalgic light for this story set in 1964 – at the moment Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act – that makes everything look a little warmer.
Of course, since the film is set in South Carolina, where racism was particularly virulent (as if it’s been cured today), this story is spiked through and through with ugly, upsetting moments of violence and bigotry, mostly sparked by the youthful naivete of its white heroine, Lily Owens, played by Hollywood’s go-to girl, Dakota Fanning.
Lily accidentally killed her mother when she was 4, discharging a pistol while her mother struggled with her father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), about leaving him. Now it’s 10 years later and T. Ray is a bitter peach farmer who all but ignores his daughter, leaving her in the care of their housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson).
After seeing LBJ signing the civil-rights bill on TV, Rosaleen decides to register to vote and Lily accompanies her into town. When vicious white men try to stop her, Rosaleen refuses to be cowed – and winds up in the hospital for her trouble. T. Ray, meanwhile, grounds Lily – who’s worried for Rosaleen’s safety. So she sneaks out of the house, busts Rosaleen out of the hospital and hits the road with her, heading for the tiny town of Tiburon, S.C. – like Huck and Jim escaping down the river on a raft.
She’s not sure why; she just knows that, among her scant keepsakes of her dead mother, she has a piece of wood with a picture of a black Madonna pasted to it and the name of the town written on the back. Once she gets to Tiburon, she discovers that the picture is, in fact, the label from a brand of honey, made and marketed by a local family of sisters, the Boatwrights. So Lily and Rosaleen present themselves at the Boatwright house, a kind of Oz of good feelings that seems to provide sanctuary in its own little bubble that has nothing to do with mid-1960s’ civil-rights strife.
The Boatwrights are proud, self-sufficient women, named after pages of the calendar. August (Queen Latifah) is the strong center, June (Alicia Keys) is the flinty one and May (Sophie Okonedo) is the slightly touched holy innocent. They take in the wanderers and put them to work, despite June’s misgivings about the shaky story that Lily has made up for them about being an orphan en route to find family.
Over the course of a summer, Lily sparks a racial incident (involving a black adolescent her own age, with whom she shares romantic feelings) and learns secrets about her mother. The racial subplots insert the kind of ugliness you’d expect, but they still feel pro forma. The lesson is always the same: You can’t let the intolerance and evil of others shake your faith in the basic goodness of people and the meaningfulness of life. (John McCain’s starkly nasty, race-baiting campaign rallies make it obvious that this is still an on-going concern.)
Instead, the film boils down to Lily’s attempt to overcome her sense of being unlovable, of being someone who inevitably causes bad things to happen. But that feels more like a story device than anything else.
Fanning is a sensitive young actress who gives honest emotional performances, no matter the surroundings. This is the first time I can recall her seeming to be working too hard – to be acting instead of just being – which is probably the director’s miscue.
On the other hand, I could watch Queen Latifah all day. She has a natural warmth and depth that she doesn’t have to act – and a dignity that can’t be denied. Yet there’s a humor to the performance that meshes perfectly with the spikier portrayal by Alicia Keys. Sophie Okonedo plays the emotionally disturbed sister without giving in to clichés, though the cliché of the sanctified simpleton tends to cloy.
Kidd’s book was a best-seller and Prince-Bythewood has made a movie that seems to stand on its own, even as it assembles clichés into neat little piles. All movies are manipulative; it just depends on how much you notice or object to the manipulation. This movie overstays its welcome and leaves you feeling used – though perhaps not cheapened.
It’s a fine line, to be sure.