February 18, 2009

Written by Jeff Giles

The Secret Life of Bees (20th Century Fox)

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany, Tristan Wilds

As former celebrities from Michael Lookinland to Frankie Muniz could tell you, making the leap from child actor to adult thespian is a tricky feat; no matter how much the public likes you when you’re eight, transitioning into adult scripts is about as likely as a soap star landing the starring role in an Academy Award-winning film – it can happen, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t, but betting on it is probably not a very smart idea. Still, if you were going to put money on one of the current crop of child actors having a lifelong career, Dakota Fanning wouldn’t be a bad name to pick – not only because of her talent, which is formidable, but because she has an uncanny knack for choosing age-appropriate scripts that give her a chance to do something more than just look cute.

Case in point: The Secret Life of Bees, which, while certainly not all that great a film on its own merits, is a pretty perfect starring vehicle for a 14-year-old girl who doesn’t want to waste her talents in, say, Bratz: The Movie. Whatever the movie’s faults – and there are a few – it gives Fanning plenty of opportunities to show off her dramatic chops. To the extent that Bees rests on Fanning’s slender shoulders, it succeeds; she delivers a quiet, confident performance that has more to do with her acting, and less to do with those big ol’ eyes, than most of her earlier work.

If only The Secret Life of Bees was more of a feature-length drama and less of a Lifetime feature of the week. If you have any Oprah-watching bookworms in your life, you’re probably already familiar with the Sue Monk Kidd novel it’s adapted from – or at least its tasteful, golden-hued cover, which does a good job of setting up the heartwarming, feminist storyline inside. Fanning plays Lily, a South Carolinian teen who inadvertently murdered her mother when she was four years old; somewhat predictably, her father (Paul Bettany) is a tightly wound bastard who expresses his anguish by making Lily do things like kneeling on grits for an hour. The story is set in 1964, just after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, so when Lily goes walking into town with Rosaleen, the family’s black housekeeper (who just so happens to be on her way to register to vote), you pretty much know what’s going to happen – specifically, the pair will be waylaid by a pack of pissed-off crackers, violence will ensue, and before you know it, Lily and Rosaleen (played to perfection by Jennifer Hudson) have struck out for Tiburon.

Why they’re headed for Tiburon, and exactly what they find there, are matters best left for viewers of the film; suffice it to say they end up bunking down with a trio of beekeeping, wisdom-dispensing sisters (Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo) who teach Lily and Rosaleen a thing or two about life, love, and how to squeeze a few cheap tears out of a story’s final act. The performances are uniformly strong, although Latifah and Keys seem to have been chosen for their roles because they closely match each performer’s public persona, and as a result, neither woman is asked to do much in the way of acting. Fanning and Bettany are the only members of the cast who are visibly doing anything other than line-reading; Bettany’s tense, sweaty performance, all malevolent eyes and pursed lips, is far more layered than the script calls for, and Fanning’s emotional breakdown toward the end of the film is absolutely spellbinding.

Still, for all the talent on display, Bees does a curiously poor job of drawing the viewer in. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s script and direction focuses on the idyllic warmth of the house in Tiburon, which makes for a much more pleasant movie, but it also keeps the stakes so low that Bees becomes little more than a series of beautifully lit scenes – scenes that are usually capped with a morsel of wisdom from Latifah, Keys, or Okonedo – and even when the outside world inevitably intrudes, the viewer never needs to worry that anything truly bad will happen. Of course, bad things don’t need to happen in a movie in order to make it worth watching – but when you’re trying to trace the arc of a character’s journey out of heartbreak and into healing, you need to make the audience really feel those steps, and that never really happens here. It’s a disappointingly numbing film.

In development for nearly a decade, The Secret Life of Bees was clearly a passion project for Prince-Bythewood and its producers, and that commitment shows in the DVD’s bonus features. This isn’t to say that the extras are all that entertaining, but they do include a trio of deeply self-congratulatory featurettes that make it obvious just how much everyone enjoyed working with each other – and just how much Kidd, who stars in a stroll through the film’s main set, appreciates seeing her work on the big screen. Also included are a pair of commentary tracks and a number of deleted scenes, offering a commendable value for the $18 it’ll cost you at Amazon. At bottom, Bees isn’t much more than a pleasant diversion for less demanding mothers-in-law, but for Fanning fans and anyone in need of a happy ending, it’ll do in a pinch.

Read more articles and reviews by Jeff Giles at Popdose.

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