Friday, October 17, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees: Strong buzz

The Secret Life of Bees (2008) • View trailer for The Secret Life of Bees
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.17.08
Buy DVD: The Secret Life of Bees • Buy Blu-Ray: The Secret Life of Bees [Blu-ray]

Certain historical flashpoints remain popular subjects for stories, because savvy authors recognize that we bring cultural awareness to the relationship between artist and audience: If the fictitious characters are constructed persuasively enough to co-exist with real-world events, the drama becomes even more intense.
August (Queen Latifah, left) is surprised to discover that Lily (Dakota Fanning)
doesn't fear the winged insects that fill the hives and produce the sweet honey
for which the Boatwright sisters have become famous. Indeed, Lily seems to
understand — in a deeply spiritual way — when August speaks reverently of
"the secret life of bees."

Director/scripter Gina Prince-Bythewood's deeply moving adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees is just such a story. Set in 1964 South Carolina, at a time when the rising civil rights movement actually made an already toxic racial environment even more combustible — because, to the hysterical rage of hard-core racists, African-Americans were daring to stand up for themselves — the narrative unfolds in a constant state of tension and suspense.

All sorts of bad things seem to await these good characters.

Grief battles with pragmatism and hope, in a film highlighted by strong performances that allow us intimate and at-times painful access to these characters and their thoughts. And, as was the case with To Kill a Mockingbird — with which this film shares both subject and tone — these events are filtered through the dawning awareness of a child, and her subsequent loss of innocence.

In the case of 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), she's not that innocent to begin with. As depicted in a brief but horrifying prologue, Lily believes herself responsible for her mother's death, years earlier, and has suffered ever since at the hands of a father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), prone to casual cruelty.

T. Ray isn't exactly abusive, and we get a strong sense that he, too, is in a state of constant despair — such is the impressive subtlety of Bettany's performance — but that doesn't make his needlessly stern and unloving treatment of Lily any less heinous.

Things might be worse, were if not for the sheltering care extended by Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), who works for T. Ray and has become something of a surrogate mother to Lily. The girl, in turn, has grown to care for Rosaleen: enough to be quite concerned when the older woman quietly shares her intention to walk to a nearby town and register to vote.

Sadly, an almost inevitable encounter with some vicious white crackers goes as badly as could be expected.

Prince-Bythewood does not exploit this scene, but Rogier Stoffers' camera also doesn't flinch from it; we cannot help sharing Lily's sick and heavy-hearted reaction to what she witnesses. (Bullies are nothing new in the world, I realize, and yet I still find it difficult to comprehend that people would behave this way to another human being, based solely on skin color ... and that such behavior was considered acceptable, as recently as 44 years ago.)

Finally fed up with her own father, and worried about Rosaleen's likely future, Lily orchestrates a plan of escape and the two hit the road. Their destination — Tiburon, also in South Carolina — is governed solely by the fact that this town's name is printed on the back of one of the few mementos Lily has from her mother.

Sheer chance (fate?) sends them to the unexpectedly palatial home of the Boatwright sisters: the firm but loving August (Queen Latifah), the suspicious and fiercely independent June (Alicia Keys) and the oddly childlike May (Sophie Okonedo, so memorable — and Oscar-nominated — in 2004's Hotel Rwanda). Lily has been drawn to the Boatwright family business, the cultivation of honey; bees already have been something of a totem for the young teen, as we've seen earlier in the film.

Although probably seeing right through the lies Lily spins in order to bolster their request to stay with these women, August graciously permits the imposition. Lily and Rosaleen thus become part of an unusual family dynamic: one run entirely by women, although men aren't regarded with any particular suspicion. Indeed, two occupy this home's fringes: One is Neil (Nate Parker), sweet on June and sharing her political activism. He constantly asks her hand in marriage, and gets turned down every time.

The other is Zachary (Tristan Wilds), August's godson, whose compassionate, youthful masculinity proves attractive to Lily, who is just entering that phase of her life when boys become important. Needless to say, the increasing attraction between a black young man and a white young woman — in this environment, at this time — makes our breath catch.

All the more so because Lily, apparently wise enough to recognize that Rosaleen should understand when to keep her mouth shut, is too naive to realize the very similar danger that her close proximity brings to Zachary.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, T. Ray broods and wonders how to find his missing daughter.

Despite the strong atmosphere of menace that threatens from several directions, Prince-Bythewood's film is highlighted more by its tender spirit, and the interactions between these captivating characters.

All five women are very strong performers, although none is better than Okonedo, whose May succumbs far too easily, and frequently, to overwhelming bouts of despair and depression. She is the most fragile of creatures, and Lily responds to this, recognizing a kindred spirit who needs similarly gentle handling.

May is the reason the Boatwright home is painted Pepto-Bismol pink; the color brings a smile to her face.

But May also is given to giggling moments of impish delight, and therein lies the forcefulness of Okonedo's performance: Although May is a frequently forlorn character, she gets many of the best and most perceptive lines, which Okonedo delivers with maximum impact. May is, in a sense, a bewitching individual; her moods and behavior affect everybody else, generally for the better.

Queen Latifah is May's opposite: calmly, coolly powerful, fazed by nothing and always willing to expect the best in somebody. (Funny thing, that: She usually gets it, even from those not necessarily inclined to give it.) August has both otherworldly grace and the commanding resolve of a born leader; her many scenes with Lily, as she explains hives, honey production and "the secret life of bees" to the young girl, are magical.

Even more magical is the moment when August explains the history of the wooden Black Madonna effigy that occupies a place of respect in their living room. Queen Latifah shares this obviously oft-told tale with the dramatic intensity of a born storyteller; it not only seems appropriate that the wide-eyed Lily falls under her spell, but that we do, as well.

Fanning is similarly compelling. Having disconcertingly transitioned to young womanhood since her previous mainstream hit — 2006's Charlotte's Web, when she clearly still was a little girl — Fanning persuasively grapples with an astonishing range of emotions, as Lily responds to racism, self-loathing, hormones and the growing awareness that perhaps, maybe, she's becoming part of a doting family environment.

All of which makes Lily's inevitable collapse that much more heartbreaking, when various truths finally emerge; the distraught girl's horrifying belief that she's unlovable, and somehow cursed, is as wrenching as any other tragic moment in this film (and there are several).

Keys, continuing to build a respectable second career as an actress, has a less showy role as June, but we're always aware of this woman's presence; perhaps even more than August, June is a ferocious mother lion who'll do anything to protect her own.

Hudson slides so smoothly into Rosaleen's character that we forget this is a performance. When Rosaleen explains to Lily that sometimes it's impossible to back down in the face of threatening racist jugheads, Hudson's flashing eyes and measured line delivery carry the weight, pride and dignity of generations before her.

Prince-Bythewood must be credited for the way she handles this cast of potential scene-stealers; they all function as an inter-related ensemble, as generous in spirit and mutual respect as the family dynamic at the heart of this story. The result is a thoroughly engaging film with an impact far beyond what one would expect from its having been marketed as a little "indie flick."

And it will, I'm sure, drive even more readers to Kidd's already quite popular novel.

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