Dakota Fanning as Lily Owens
Queen Latifah as August Boatwright
Jennifer Hudson as Rosaleen Daise
Alicia Keys as June Boatwright
Sophie Okonedo as May Boatwright
Paul Bettany as T. Ray Owens
Hilarie Burton as Deborah Owens
Tristan Wilds as Zach Taylor
Nate Parker as Neil
Magical naturalism is a tricky thing. When it works it achieves a kind of effortless attraction that makes the pull of its story irresistible. And when it doesn’t it reduces everything it touches to cloying, artificial tripe. “The Secret Life of Bees,” based on a novel by Sue Monk Kidd, straddles these too extremes, flirting with each but always drawn back by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”) to neutral ground. It’s too ambitious and well-thought out to be bad, but plays things too safe to be great.
Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) hasn’t had the easiest life, growing up not exactly poor, but not exactly middle class either in rural South Carolina in the 1960s with no particular prospects, a distant, uninvolved father (Paul Bettany) and an absent mother. Absent because Lily accidentally shot her when she was four years old during a heated domestic altercation. To say she has unresolved emotional issues would be a profound understatement.
It all sounds pretty good, on paper.
In execution, it’s a little bland. Except for Lily, everyone else tends to go towards extreme stock characterization, and the story isn’t above some extremely contrived coincidences to work out its plot. One night, a swarm of bees magically emerges from Lily’s bedroom wall and flies off. Shortly thereafter Lily does the same, escaping with to her mother’s home town with her family housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) after she’s beaten and arrested for attempting to register to vote. After spotting an idiosyncratic bottle of local honey sporting a black Virgin Mary on the label and remembering the bees, Lily decides she’s been given a sign. Before you know it, she and Rosaleen have moved in with the women behind the label, the highly cultured, slightly eccentric Boatwright sisters: August (Queen Latifah), May (Sophie Okonedo), and June (Alicia Keys).
Because it is set in the South against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Act, it would be easy to assume “The Secret Life of Bees” is about race relations, but Kidd and Prince-Bythewood are casting their net further than that. Lily has some tremendous abandonment and alienation issues to work through that are holding her back as surely as Jim Crow laws were African Americans in the South. Life is difficult, often cruel and capricious, and only the connections between human beings can get us through it.
This is all very important stuff, and fertile ground for complex characterization, and deserves better than the easy moralizing and simplistic allegory (disguised as deep wisdom) that it gets. The Boatwrights have been set up, not as people in their own right, but examples of how to live in the world, and the dangers involved. And in very simplistic terms; May runs a little too warm, June too cold, but August is just right.
Through August, Lily is shown it’s possible to navigate the pits and perils of living, even against the worst tragedies, usually through a metaphor to her apiary. She’s a superwoman not a real person; an example of how to live life. She’s got no cracks, no complexity. She’s meant to be inspiring, but a real person who inspires in spite of their flaws, not because they don’t have any, would have been better. August isn’t very real, even for a fictional character. She’s supposed to represent the perfect mother figure, but perfect characters are dull. Even when the reality of racial hatred is brought to their doorstep, it mainly becomes an opportunity for another life lesson for all involved. If August works at all, it’s because Latifah is so successful at imbuing her with a certain regalness. It doesn’t make her any better as a character, but you don’t mind so much.
The cast as a whole is generally excellent and the only reason “The Secret Life of Bees” doesn’t sink entirely into mediocrity. Dakota Fanning as grown from eerily talented child actress to a scarily talented 14-year-old. Her breakdown in front of August is the highlight of the film, requiring a degree of skill a lot of actors can’t convincingly pull off. It’s very easy to wail and gnash your teeth on camera; it’s very hard to do it and not come off boorish. Fanning never does. And Alicia Keys, in only her third film, has got movie star written all over her. On the other hand Jennifer Hudson is given absolutely nothing to do, fading into the background as soon as the Boatwrights arrive on the scene.
Still, all the pieces are there for a really, really good movie, but there’s an undeniable sense of reluctance to put them into play. Every time it seems like the film might be taking a chance, Prince-Bythewood retreats to safe ground, eventually unleashing a torrent of coincidences so unlikely it’s impossible to sustain disbelief any longer. There is certainly a strong religious aspect to “Bees,” complete with signs, portents, and a messianic figure. An argument can be made that the coincidences are part of that, a sign of God at work in Lily’s life. I’m not sure that’s enough to wash the taste of sloppy storytelling out. This film deserved better.