The trailer for The Secret Life of Bee looks life-affirming. I hate life-affirming movies. I truly dislike being manipulated into feeling a certain way, feeling as though if a tear doesn’t come to my eye that I don’t “get it” or have a heart like a cherry pit. Nothing irks me more than swelling orchestral music, timed to coincide with a first tender kiss, the death of a loved one or a warm embrace between long-lost relatives. So I went to The Secret Life of Bees expecting a slight story buoyed by a handful of cinematic tricks geared to turn me into a ball of mush. Instead I found a rarity, a life affirming movie that didn’t make me want to reach for a barf bag.
Based on the Sue Monk Kidd bestselling novel the movie is set in the American south in 1964. Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) is an emotionally damaged fourteen-year-old being raised by her abusive single parent father (Paul Bettany) after she accidentally shot her mother ten years previously. President Lyndon B Johnson has just written a Civil Rights Bill into law promising equality to all, but when Lily and her nanny Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) try and exercise that equality Rosaleen is brutalized by bigoted townsfolk. Following the beating the pair go one the run—Lily from her father, Rosaleen from police custody. They end up at the Pepto Bismol-pink home of the bee-keeping Boatwright sisters (Queen Latifah, Sophie Okenodo and Alicia Keys) in the nearby town of Tiburon. It’s a sanctuary and, as Lily soon discovers, a link to her former life.
Yes, it’s a dreaded coming of age story. Ugh. Yes, it is manipulative and yes, it is life affirming. Then why did I like it so much? I liked it because although it is all of the above it is also a well crafted, warm hearted story with compelling characters, good performances with an interesting dollop of civil rights history thrown in. The combination of personal stories set against the backdrop of Jim Crow America isn’t a new idea, but The Secret Life of Bees manages a hopeful tone, despite the hatred and bigotry contained in the story.
Leading the cast is Dakota Fanning, the young actress best known as the pre-teen star of War of the Worlds, Charlotte’s Web and Man on Fire. She’s now fourteen and on the cusp of adult roles and with The Secret Life of Bees takes a big step forward. Her work here is wonderful. It’s an understated and natural performance that feels utterly real. She barely moves, as though she’s almost paralyzed by a lifetime of hurt and anguish but when the levee breaks and she bursts into tears, screaming that she is “unlovable” it is heart wrenching.
The rest of the cast follows suit delivering good, solid work. Jennifer Hudson proves that her Oscar for Dreamgirls wasn’t just a fluke; Queen Latifah is dignified and matronly as the oldest of the Boatwright sisters; Alicia Keys gives firecracker June unexpected depths and Sophie Okonedo, in the film’s most thankless role as the emotionally fragile May, takes a character that could have been parody and gives it a sense of vulnerability, turning her into a real person.
The Secret Life of Bees is everything I hate in a movie, and much that I admire. Luckily the strong characters and good performances lift the “life affirming” curse.