Thursday, October 16, 2008

The buzz about "Bees"

In “The Secret Life of Bees,” an adaptation of a bestselling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, the side dishes are significantly better than the main course. The central story -- how a 14-year-old white girl (Dakota Fanning) escapes her abusive father and finds a place in the world -- can’t compare with the stories that are etched in the faces of the movie’s black characters, three sisters who offer shelter to Fanning’s Lily.

“The Secret Life of Bees” is one of those movies that will appeal to folks who like this sort of thing, a mixture of southern-based drama, feminist assertion and tender encounters. I had no strong reaction to the movie one way or another, although parts of it caught my eye.

Remember Sophie Okonedo? She was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar in 2004 after appearing as a Tutsi woman married to a Hutu in "Hotel Rwanda." Since then, Okonedo has worked mostly in television, but in "The Secret Life of Bees," she plays a sweet woman with a penchant for absorbing every drop of sadness in the world around her.

Okonedo's May is genuinely innocent; as such, she's the heart and soul of a story that lands Lily in a small South Carolina town where she looks for information about her late mother and finds refuge with the Boatrights: Okonedo's May; Alicia Keyes' June; and Queen Latifah's August. Lily's accompanied by her nanny (Jennifer Hudson), a woman victimized by racists in the town the two have fled. It doesn't take long to learn that the Boatright sisters are fiercely dedicated to their independence. June refuses to marry the man (Nate Parker) who pursues her, even though she loves him. And August tells us that she's been in love, but not enough to give up her freedom.

The Boatright women take in the movie's two strays, exposing them -- perhaps for the first time -- to kindness and love. August, who runs the family's bee keeping business, teaches young Lily the mysteries of bees, and the teen-ager begins to develop relationships with the people around the Boatrights, notably Zach (Tristan Wilds), a young black man to whom she's attracted.

Set during the 1960s -- just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act -- "Secret Life" chronicles the racism of the day and contrasts it with the strength of the Boatright sisters, all of whom are part of a small religious group that worships Mary, whom they see as a powerful black woman. This seems more a literary conceit than anything else, and it's not the only time the movie allows its artifice to show. But the tenderness among the women feels real, even when director Gina Prince-Bythewood sacrifices dramatic credibility to deliver life lessons.

Like so many girls from so much fiction, Lily aspires to be a writer. This gives her license to narrate the story, a device that long ago wore out its welcome with me. Still, it's difficult to deny the appeal of the Boatrights, found so clearly in Latifah’s stability, Keyes’ reserve, and Okonedo’s guileless beauty. These qualities should help inoculate "Secret Life" against overly harsh criticism, especially with viewers who like this sort of thing to begin with.

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