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HomeBlogPopcorn Parent Movie ReviewsMovie Tuesday: The Secret Life of Bees (PG-13)

Movie Tuesday: The Secret Life of Bees (PG-13)

(Rated PG-13) Based on the bestselling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning.) In 1964, Lily lives with her not-so-nice father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany) and their housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). Like every female teenage protagonist of every movie ever, Lily doesn’t fit in. However, while coming-of-age stories have our heroine feeling left out thanks to the wrong clothes or glasses, Lily is attempting to find a place in a home where kneeling on grits sprinkled on a linoleum floor is the preferred punishment.

When Rosaleen and Lily head to town so Rosaleen can register to vote, there’s trouble. Stopped by a group of white men, Rosaleen pours her tobacco juice over one man’s shoes and is beaten and arrested. She’s taken to the hospital, but not for healing—it’s because it will be easier for the men to return to get her and administer their final punishment. Lily rescues Rosaleen, and, lured by the name of a town written on a picture that belonged to Lily’s mother, they end up at the house owned by three African-American sisters: August, June and May Boatwright. (Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo, respectively.) She spends a summer working on their bee farm, falling for neighbor Zach (Tristan Wilds) and confronting every teenage girl’s secret fear: that she is unloveable.

Every performance is solid, the story is compelling, but the film never quite gels to deliver the knockout performances that it might. Part of it, weirdly, is the costuming. All of the women—Fanning and Latifah in particular—are dressed in a way that they would fit in at almost any mall in the country. This is problematic because it makes the movie feel too contemporary; since race is a major theme, it can make audiences think the racism in the film is the same as racism today. So when Zach is kidnapped as retribution for sitting with Lily in a movie theater, modern audiences might assume that of course he’ll come home safely—when that’s simply not the case in 1964 (or today, really, but that’s beside the point.) Moreover, the use of modern music on the soundtrack is distracting and further jerks you out of the time period of the story. Perhaps the director wanted to make the story timeless—what she forgot was the story of a motherless teenage girl trying to find where she belongs is inherently timeless. It’s called a fairy tale. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, plus some TV credits) didn’t trust her story to reach modern audiences.

Although the story treads some familiar ground in terms of “white girl/boy/woman/man learns valuable lesson from wise African-American teacher” (see: The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Green Mile), the film never falls fully into cliché. It looks like it’s going to in the beginning, but saves itself with moments steeped in realism and powerful performances.

There is mild profanity—the b-word and the a-word are bandied about. The N-word is common and is uttered by both white and black characters. There is some kissing, but that’s it; smoking and drinking is at a minimum. There’s some minor double-entendre with the southern delicacy known as “candle salad”—a banana stands up in a pineapple ring with a maraschino cherry pinned on top. Channel your inner 12-year-old boy and giggle about what it looks like. There is violence, both graphic and implied, and a handgun makes an appearance. One major character commits suicide and you see the dead body.

The Secret Life of Bees
is a good story well told. But it never steps into transcendence, and it had the possibility to do so. But teenage girls and their moms should find some common ground in a timeless tale that just happens to take place in 1964.

At an October 17 screening, the following movies were in previews: Milk (about the first openly gay politician; rated R); Revolutionary Road (about Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet yelling at each other; also rated R); Seven Pounds (not yet rated; Will Smith changes lives, or something), Nothing Like the Holidays (PG-13; pretty much looks like My Big Fat Latino Christmas).

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