Slightly more profane version of a review in today's Oregonian....
"The Secret Life of Bees" falls into a loose, annoying subgenre of movies I'm going to call "Ya-Ya Sisterhood Bullshit." These movies tend to be based on the sorts of books Oprah likes to endorse, and they contain some or all of the following:
- A precious, self-consciously offbeat title ("Fried Green Tomatoes," "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood").
- A condescending Hollywood interpretation of life in the South, in which people are either abusive racists full of hate or quirky saints full of hospitality.
- Hollywood stars putting on Southern accents like they're doing dinner-theater Tennessee Williams.
- A fetishy relationship with lovingly photographed food.
- A magazine-spread approach to agrarian labor, which is much nastier and more tedious in real life than the movie makes it out to be.
- At least one moment in which a character lays out a really obvious metaphor about Real Life while describing a cooking or farming technique or the behavior of a plant, animal, or insect.
- Tragic deaths or marriages that Teach Us Something About Ourselves.
- And, most important, a hug-filled affirmation of the power of sisterhood.
"The Secret Life of Bees" is based on a novel by Sue Monk Kidd. (You can find a set-visit article in the October 2008 issue of O Magazine.) The film is set in racially tense South Carolina in 1964, and concerns the awakening of 14-year-old Lily (Dakota Fanning). Lily flees her abusive father (Paul Bettany) with her African-American nanny Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) after Rosaleen is assaulted by bigots. Lily also has a secondary mission: She wants to travel to Tiburon to find out why her late mother abandoned her a decade earlier.
The movie shifts gears when Lily and Rosaleen hide out at a 28-acre honey farm run by the matronly August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys). It is, of course, paradise on earth.
From here, "Bees" becomes a Ya-Ya Bullshit magnum opus. Like "The Great Debaters" and "The Express," it takes bold stances on racism and abuse -- and by "bold," I mean "bold when 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' was released 40 years ago." Honey and cornbread are lovingly photographed. Fanning and Bettany drawl like crazy. (Sample Fanning dialogue: "My whole life's been nothin' but a hole where my momma should have been.") The women hug and fight and play classical music and dress in Sunday finery while engaged in the art of sun-dappled beekeeping. Queen Latifah does a fine job gently spouting homespun truisms like, "Some things don't matter that much, like the color of a house. But lifting someone's heart? That matters a lot."
Performances range from very good to frankly kind of horrible. Fanning continues to have terrifying focus and maturity; Latifah and Keys bask in strength. (Keys really rocks a vintage NAACP t-shirt.) But the normally great Bettany is a violent slice of grease-dipped ham here, all room-smashing and bath-needing, and Okonedo can't seem to settle on her character's level of mental disability.
But mostly, I'm just allergic to the particular brand of cloying lies this movie tells -- to the way it's fundamentally irrational as it pushes cheap emotional buttons. Characters turn on a dime emotionally or die for nonsensical reasons just because it's time for Lily's story to move forward. And ultimately, if you think about it too hard, "Bees" is a movie in which a bunch of powerful African-American women get their lives upended and in some cases destroyed so a little white girl can feel better about herself.
C-minus; 110 minutes; rated PG-13 for thematic material and some violence.
'The Secret Life of Bees' (The Oregonian, Friday, Oct. 17, 2008)