Despite taking on heavy subject matter – that would be racism in the Deep South during the ’60s – “The Secret Life of Bees” manages to stay lighthearted and entertaining. The film tugs at the heartstrings in all the right ways, delivering its message with a sweet sincerity that’s rarely seen from a studio film presumably with Oscar intentions (especially one adapted from a best-selling novel that’s been featured in Santa Barbara resident Oprah Winfrey’s infamous book club).
The film, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, follows a young white girl named Lilly who tragically loses her mother at the age of four. Ten years later, a black woman that works for Lilly’s family, Rosaline (played by Jennifer Hudson), gets almost beaten to death while trying to register to vote. It is then that Lilly decides to run away from her abusive father with Rosaline in tow so they can escape their torment.
Salvation comes for the two broken spirits at a Caribbean-pink colored house owned by August Bayright (Queen Latifah), an independent black businesswoman who manufactures honey from her home with her two sisters May (Sophie Okonedo of “Hotel Rwanda”) and June (singer-songwriter Alicia Keys). In a time of unrelenting prejudice, both Rosaline and Lilly soldier through their struggles while finding the strength of their character and the strength of love.
Each of the film’s actresses manages to shine without overshadowing one another, which is quite impressive for such a star-studded ensemble case.
Dakota Fanning brilliantly plays the protagonist Lilly in her quest to find her mother. It is definitely a different light that we see Fanning and her talents as a mature actress become more apparent. She tackles every emotion from sadness to happiness with a well-placed subtlety that elevates the character and puts the heavy emotional emphasis in the parts that deserve it the most. Alicia Keys, in her first acting role, fares well, playing the spunky, often spiteful, sister that wouldn’t dare let her emotions show. Queen Latifah and Sophie Okonedo bring a warmth and humor to the picture that really helps keep the movie from becoming a depressing wreck, given its intense subject matter.
Surprisingly, it is Hudson’s performance that is actually somewhat of a disappointment. Her character, in the beginning of the movie, began strong and vindicated, but Rosaline is sort of lost as the film progresses. It isn’t due to a lack of talent; I would possibly attribute this to an underwritten part in Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation. Hudson’s lack of lines throughout the final act of the movie leaves the audience wondering what exactly happened to the character of Rosaline, who has fallen into the background.
Overall, I give “Bees” a warm recommendation. It is a beautifully pieced-together picture that will make you laugh and make you cry. Guys, don’t think this doesn’t mean you too: I saw teary-eyed men all over the place.