Secret Life of Bees, The

Reviewed By Eugene Novikov
Posted 10/17/08 19:59:23

"Decent as shameless Hollywood tearjerkers go."
3 stars (Average)

Here's the thing about Dakota Fanning. The typical complaint -- usually stated with sarcastic disdain -- is that she's too cute and precocious, "an alien." But that's just the thing: she never plays the cute card. She never demands that we find her adorable. She desentimentalizes, constantly. And that lets her bring real characters into fantastic, sometimes even silly situations. She's an asset to any Hollywood movie.

The Secret Life of Bees could have been disastrous. It begins with Fanning's Lily Owens telling us, in voiceover, "I killed my mother when I was 4 years old" -- reminiscent of the opening line of the great Eve's Bayou, also set in the 1960s American south. But it doesn't take long for the movie to repudiate any notion that it is headed anywhere gritty or dark: soon enough little Lily is hightailing it from her abusive father (an unrecognizable Paul Bettany) with her beaten black maid (Jennifer Hudson), and taking up residence at the home of a folksy beekeeper (Queen Latifah) with some uncertain connection to Lily's dead mother.

A lot of this is almost embarrassingly sappy. I mean, it's a movie about three black sisters who live in a bright pink house and teach a white girl some folksy wisdom involving beehive metaphors. ("The world's really just one big bee yard, says Latifah's August Boatwright, with three rules: don't be afraid, don't be an idiot, and no swatting.) Lily gets a love interest (The Wire's Tristan Wilds), and there's a secondary romance subplot between August's sister June (Alicia Keys) and a man she loves but refuses to marry (Nate Parker). The Boatwrights are haunted by a past tragedy that predictably rears its head in the third act. And meanwhile, Lily becomes part of the family, even as her father goes searching for her.

This really shouldn't work -- I'm too old, damn it -- but somehow it got me. Partly it's because the film supplements the sentimentality with a real, disarming sweetness: I grinned when it paused to indulge in a reasonably lengthy scene of the characters playing with a sprinkler. It also helps that the movie avoids hauling in any sort of conventional villain; even the father is mostly just insecure, and can be reasoned with. More importantly, it appears to have genuine affection for its characters, who operate on a human level even when the movie is at its most contrived and unlikely.

But as you may have guessed, I give the bulk of the credit to Dakota Fanning, who defuses The Secret Life of Bees' maudlin tendencies nearly every time she appears on screen. She obviously doesn't see this material as sentimental tripe. She takes it seriously, refusing to play to the cheap seats. It's a great performance, supported by a typically lovely turn from Queen Latifah and a similarly unsentimental one from Tristan Wilds (though it's a bit creepy to watch him put the moves on the much younger Fanning).

Mostly, this is Hollywood excess the way I like to see it: skillfully done, and with a beating heart. The string-pulling is a bit much at times, but if you're willing to roll with it, The Secret Life of Bees is a charmer.

(Reprinted from

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