NOTE: This review regards the so-called “Director’s Extended Cut”. I’m not sure how it differs from the theatrical cut (other than an extraneous four minutes added for those who do care), but I can’t imagine this version as any sort of improvement.
Bottom Line: It has its moments to shine amongst two hours of staggering boredom.
Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring: Alicia Keys, Dakota Fanning, Hilarie Burton, Jennifer Hudson, Nate Parker, Paul Bettany, Queen Latifah, Shondrella Avery, Sophie Okonedo, Tristan Wilds
When you come across a film poster flaunting a smile across every included face, there’s a 98% chance it’s another “feel-good” flick about to hit cinemas. Save for a few exceptions that have backed away from the tiresome archetypes (i.e. Jerry Maguire, Slumdog Millionaire), rarely is this a good sign. I often feel worried that the crews behind these films think its key audience is full of idiots who cannot even mildly identify the recurring thematic formula: assess the problem in the story, gradually evolve from saddening to joyful, relieve the audience’s emotions with a scene that will guarantee a good cry, then all of a sudden end on a severely optimistic note. The Secret Life of Bees is a film harrowed in majority not because it plays out as such a film, but because it offers nothing new, or nothing noticeably original, for that matter. The film isn’t terrible, due to some select bright spots and a solid performance from Queen Latifah–may I add that this gets my vote for her best performance since Chicago. Aside from those who watch films for that ultimate catharsis, it’s not particularly engaging.
The Secret Life of Bees is the story of a girl named Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), set in 1964 South Carolina. Haunted by what little she does know about her mother, whom died when she was four years old, and troubled in her relationship with her father, Lily flees to the town of Tiburon with her maid and–currently–only friend. There she comes across a house inhabited by three African-American sisters, skilled at beekeeping, and learns about pieces of her mother’s past she never would have known otherwise. We want to care about Lily, given her situation and that she is the main character. It goes without saying that we can forgive some minor characters for being detestable beyond belief, but it’s difficult to follow a story in which the protagonist isn’t very agreeable, either. I struggle to decide which is more nonplussing: the character’s carefree narrative as written in Sue Monk Kidd’s source novel, or Dakota Fanning delivering her character in an overacted fashion.
Despite acting out as far more unisex than the source material (there is some “chick flick” DNA in here, but it’s not as blatant as in the novel), The Secret Life of Bees is a shallow period piece. Though not quite a sleeping pill, it’s filled with intermittent yawns. So much plot is crammed within the first twenty minutes that the rest of the script tends to meander with an inconsistent pace. I’ll admit the ending was pretty decent and surprisingly innovative to the “feel-good” archetypes. If only such innovation had pervaded the story. Just a little chutzpah from writer-director Prince-Bythewood could have made this story far better presented. I won’t recommend bug repellent for this one, as it isn’t an overall torturous viewing. I would, however, recommend last year’s The Help instead, as a far more rewarding film with similar themes, setting, and genre.
Postscript: I still can’t make sense of the title. The beekeeping was even more of a side story than it was in the source novel. Films have the liberty to market under different titles than those of their source material, and I could knock a dozen alternate titles right off the top of my head. If there is some symbolism in it, though, please let me know, because I simply couldn’t identify it.