The Secret Life of Bees
I wonder why we tend to categorize films with labels like "a woman's film," or "a tearjerker." I am happy to admit that when I saw "The Secret Life of Bees" I was in tears for much of it, and I don't feel that my own masculinity was being compromised. "The Secret Life of Bees" is a translation into film of the novel by Sue Monk Kidd, set in 1964 in South Carolina, about a 14-year-old named Lily (Dakota Fanning), living with her father T.Ray (the English actor Paul Bettany), a brutal man who cannot show any feelings, particularly toward Lily. When Lily was four and saw her parents fighting, a gun dropped to the floor, Lily picked it up and fired, hitting her mother and killing her.
A young woman named Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) is their housekeeper, and having seen Lyndon Johnson on television signing the Voting Rights Act decides to go and register. She is beaten by white racists, and so one day she and Lily set out to find some place of respite. Lily has an old label from a jar of honey that shows a black Mary and child; somehow she knows to look for it, and then finds it not too far away in a town called Tiburon.
What they find is a house owned by the beekeeping Boatwright sisters, August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo), who take Lily and Rosaleen in. The rest of the film is about their lives in the Boatwright house, a safe and loving place, though with its own tragedies as well, and with the unspoken and very real menace that T.Ray will come and find Lily.
Queen Latifah is perfectly cast as the oldest, warmest and most inviting sister, but Okonedo (the British actress who played Tatiana Rusesabagina, Don Cheadle's wife, in "Hotel Rwanda"), is amazing as the sister who finds a way to grieve over everything bad she sees. In fact the sisters have built her a Western Wall, after the one in Jerusalem, into which she puts notes about every tragedy she learns of.
Perhaps the loveliest surprise is how Dakota Fanning has grown into a real actress. Now just 14 herself, she has a serenity to her that lets her sit quietly and yet reflect the emotions of those around her. I think she has the same ability as Jody Foster had, which was to make the transition from child actor to adult as a seamless growth.
"The Secret Life of Bees" was written from the book and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, a television director whose only previous feature was "Love and Basketball" (2000), and who does a marvelous job of allowing great emotion while at the same time never dwelling on it.