Although the standard reply of most critics is that we don't have to read a book to be able to judge a film since they're two separate entities, I must admit that upon walking into the press screening of The Secret Life of Bees, I was feeling guilty on three levels. Namely, still exhausted by too little sleep and too many film screenings during the week of our local film festival, I felt unprepared as a critic with only the vaguest idea of what the film was actually about. Additionally, secondly as a book lover, I was embarrassed that I hadn't been able to work Sue Monk Kidd's beloved novel in with my collegiate studies over the years. Likewise, thirdly as a woman and feminist, I didn't want to let down my loyal readers with an in-depth evaluation on how the film's writer/director-- the incredibly talented Gina Prince-Bythewood (who first impressed with her breakthrough film Love and Basketball) has translated the female-centric book to the screen.
Yet, in this particular case, I thought that my naivete may have actually helped more than it hindered as within moments of the film-- which begins with the most heartbreaking few minutes I've seen in cinema in 2008 so far-- my guess is that I wouldn't have been hit nearly as hard had I been holding the novel up for too close of an inspection. Like the film's young protagonist, Lily (Dakota Fanning), I became an eager participant in the world, metaphorically curling up at the feet of the film as if I were a child being told the most fascinating tale filled with tragedy, optimism and a plethora of memorable female characters that won't leave my mind-scape anytime soon.
Bees' cinematic origins developed initially as a a labor of love to all involved with the film including finding a champion in You've Got Mail and X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner and Fox Serachlight's Joe Pichirallo who'd helped bring Denzel Washington's directorial debut Antwone Fisher to audiences years earlier, along with joining forces with Will Smith and James Lassiter's Overbrook Entertainment, which ultimately led to Smith and especially his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith (who served as the executive producer) on the path to making sure the film would eventually find its way to the screen.
Yet much to my surprise, the woman who would ultimately end up penning and helming the work after years had passed and the producers had moved on-- Prince-Bythewood had been relatively late to finally picking up the novel herself. Having been sent it six years earlier, she found herself far "too exhausted to read it" after working on two directorial projects but when family and friends kept building the hype and raving about Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller, finally five years later she picked it up and an instant fan, regretted that she'd possibly "missed an opportunity to be involved."
However, fate played a hand and months later, Bees "was again sent to her for consideration," according to the press release and despite going up against other talents, they realized they'd found precisely the right filmmaker they'd wanted all along. Amazingly, the casting all worked out to their advantage as well, when Fanning-- everyone's "unanimous favorite" signed on, along with Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson in the first real role to show her acting chops, a pitch-perfect embodiment of Kidd's matriarch, Queen Latifah, an against-type Paul Bettany as Lily's brutal, violent father, a touching turn by Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo as the childlike May (reminiscent of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men's George and some of the characters from To Kill A Mockingbird's landscape), as well as singer Alicia Keys.
A project that had been close to Keys' heart for years as she'd actually reached out to the producers personally to share her passion and desire for involvement, according to the press release, Prince-Bythewood was admittedly apprehensive as it was only going to be the Grammy winner's third time appearing onscreen. Yet, again the book is what brought them all together when Keys personally chose that exact book for a "Reading is Fundamental" public service announcement.
While undeniably, Prince-Bythewood's had the most difficult role in translating the novel to the screen, in my opinion, the success of the entire film depended entirely on its ensemble cast. I was gripped from the start as in a horrific flashback, we witness the four year old Lily accidentally killing her mother when a gun falls to the floor during a fight between her parents. Holding in the guilt of murder-- although it was unintentional, when we see Lily ten years later, her eyes hold the anguish we would expect. Working her father's peach-stand by day and trying to stay out of his way, Lily and her beloved nanny Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) end up fleeing their home in the 60's after Rosaleen is beaten and arrested for trying to vote when the civil rights act is passed.
With only a vague idea of where to go thanks to a precious few items left behind by her mother, they end up in Tiburon, South Carolina which appears in the background of the only remaining photo of Lily's mom. In tracing her maternal roots, the worldly and battle-scarred Lily and Rosaleen end up at the Pepto-Bismol colored home of August Boatwright (Queen Latifah). A beekeeper and honey-maker by trade who makes what's widely known as the best honey for miles, August and her two sisters, the militant highly educated feminist music teacher June (Alicia Keys) and the childlike mentally challenged and overly emotional May (Sophie Okonedo) end up taking the two young women in after the quick-thinking Lily feeds them one lie after another as you can see below.
"Who We Got Here?"
In a truly unprecedented tale for its time which finds the highly-educated, intelligent, compassionate and wealthy Boatwright women owning their own land and business, it's refreshing for a period film to provide fully realized characters for a predominantly African-American female cast as in most 60's tales, we seldom are told a story from their point-of-view and most routinely are shown ones that would've only been from Lily and her caretaker Rosaleen's.
While they're all uniformly excellent and Fanning gives her best performance to date-- really starting to come into her own as a remarkable young actress with extraordinary emotional depth-- I was especially moved by Okonedo's May. Of course, on the surface, most filmgoers would probably dismiss her character as simply "mentally challenged" or "disabled," as she feels things so much on such an intense personal level that she's created her own version of Israel's Wailing-Wall in her yard where she stores scraps of paper between rocks of the horrific goings-on. However, she seems to be the embodiment of the harsh reality of the era and its constantly weeping conscience of just what human beings can do to one another.
Latifah's instantly likable and winning charm pay off immensely, Keys slides easily into her tough-as-nails character as she calls the shots in her own relationship, Hudson has finally earned the lofty praise showered over her in her impressive (but far from Oscar worthy) debut in Dreamgirls, but in the end I'd be very shocked if Fanning, Okonedo and its compassionate filmmaker Prince-Bythewood weren't in Oscar contention.
A genuine three-tissue film where tears flow freely and feel far more earned than in the recent cheap shot, manipulative Nicholas Sparks' adaptation Nights in Rodanthe yet with more optimism and joy than the downright negative and stereotypical Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Secret Life of Bees is far greater than one would assume if you've never read the book or are a man who tries to avoid female-centric films like the plague.
Not to mention with terrific craftsmanship from Dutch cinematographer Rogier Stoffers (Disturbia, Mongol, Lakeview Terrace), editor Terilyn A. Shopshire (Talk to Me, Eve's Bayou) and music by Mark Isham (Crash, The Express, Invincible), it's also one of the best of its kind since Mary Stuart Masterson's Idgie Threadgoode appeared on the scene in Jon Avnet's 1991 adaptation of Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes. Thus, The Secret is out-- whether or not you're in Monk Kidd's book club, Bees is a must see all the same with a Life all its own and a positive message of love and finding mothers and sisters in the unlikeliest of places. And in a world gone mad with negativity, there's nothing like a little honey for the soul to remind everyone to be a little nicer to one another.
Read the Book