October 16, 2008

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The Secret Life of Bees (PG-13)
A young girl runs away from home and finds squishy self-empowerment with a trio of aggressively quirky sisters in 1960s South Carolina in The Secret Life of Bees, a movie based on the book which was not a book in Oprah’s Book Club but is exactly what you think of when you think of an Oprah book.

Though maybe Oprah was turned off by the fact that the story, which is heavy on information about race relations in the South as LBJ signs the civil rights act, is told from the point of view of a 14-year-old white girl. Like a fly buzzing around your peripheral vision, this aspect of the story is just a bit annoying at times.

Lily (Dakota Fanning) tells us in the movie’s opening moments that she killed her mother when she — Lily — was four years old. It was an accident, of course, one that happened while her mother was struggling with T. Ray (Paul Bettany), Lily’s father. Lily’s mother was packing to leave him and T. Ray violently disagreed with her decision. His desire to keep his family intact has not, 10 years later, turned him into a loving Dad of the lonely Lily. He is one big angry yell, leaving Lily to look to housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) for motherly love. After Rosaleen watches on TV in awe as LBJ signs the civil rights act, she decides to go in to town to register to vote. But having Congress support your right to register to vote and not being harassed on the way to city hall by a group of dumb rednecks are two different things. Rosaleen is patient with these bullying men several minutes longer than I would have been but then uses the spit cup from her tobacco to work out her very justified anger at the men. The “law” (or at least the lawmen) is on the rednecks’ side, however, and Rosaleen ends up arrested, beaten and restrained to a hospital bed awaiting jail. Lily’s father makes the slip of telling Lily — probably correctly — that Rosaleen will likely be killed by the men. Because of this and because Lily decides finally to tell off her father, Lily runs away, stopping by the hospital on the way out of town to take Rosaleen with her. Her destination comes from one of the few clues she has about her mother — a town name written on the back of a picture of a Madonna and child. The artifact eventually takes her to the home of August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), a bee keeper and honey bottler who lives in the family home with her sisters June (Alicia Keys), a music teacher, and May (Sophie Okenedo).

Lily asks August to let her and Rosaleen stay and work for their keep, which Rosaleen does by helping the emotionally fragile May in the kitchen and Lily does by helping the can-do August tend to bees. June is all tangled up in a plot of her own about whether she will or won’t marry her boyfriend Neil (Nat Parker). And providing lots of interracial, first-stirrings-of-love tension for Lily is Zach Tayler (Tristan Wilds, the Brandon equivalent on the new 90210).

My problems with this movie — in addition to the whole civil-rights-as-backdrop-for-Dakota-Fanning’s-finding-herself thing — are that (a) based on this plot description I’ll be you could accurately guess the way the story unfolds and (b) everybody speaks like they’re reading from an inspirational poster, one about self-esteem. The result is that it takes a story that, what with it starting off with a girl killing her mom, is a bit much anyway and makes it a bit more too much. I actually liked most of the characters in this story, even with the sunny golden glow the movie gives to everything, but all the believing-in-your-strength talk highlights the too-cutesiness of the quirky Boatwright sisters and the “you go girl” development of Lily. The people and events become less real and more excuses for some teachable moment of self-determination.
Having said this, the movie does fill every last bit of space not taken up by aphorisms with likeable characters. Hudson’s role is small but begins the rehabilitation process from her unfortunate role in Sex and the City. Fanning is tolerable — her cute-as-a-button position having been filled by Abigail Breslin, she’s left to be a scrawny young teenager, which actually fits well in this part. And Queen Latifah — well, she all but double dog dares you not to like her and then fixes you a Pooh-sized pot of honey (this movie’s Favorite Thing) for you to drool over.

This movie is a bit too sweet yet sort of guiltily satisfying — like a honey latte for the soul. B-
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some violence. Written and directed from Gina Prince-Bythewood (from a novel by Sue Monk Kidd), The Secret Life of Bees is an hour and 50 minutes long and will open on Friday, Oct. 17. It is distributed by Fox Searchlight.