The aristocratically named Gina Prince-Bythewood directed her well-intentioned magnum opus The Secret Life of Bees, adapting it six years after Sue Monk Kidd released her novel of the same name. After being interested, with apprehensions of course, to seeing it in that interesting movie year of 2008 when it was released, I finally got around to watching it in the same weekend as The Wicker Man. Which got me confused. What was I supposed to think of bees and women and America and men now? This strangest of double bills made me realize that I wish movies work in such an interactive way so that the casts of these two movies could switch around. Both movies have the same character archetypes anyway.
I again understand the sexism attack against The Wicker Man and that the script labels them all as duplicitous but the actors execute their performances in shades as opposed to delineated borders. The class differences between them isn’t as plain because we see them through Edward’s perspective, and that they don’t out-yell Cage because no one should. The characters in Bees, however, don’t exude that same surprise, no matter what kind of dark secrets they have in their histories. We know the purpose they serve in the story and each other when the movie introduces them to us. They are stereotypes and their flaccid character arcs don’t change and deepen our understanding of them.
Basically T. Ray Owens is the entitled, emotionally stunted and volatile white man (Paul Bettany). His sense of entitlement eventually motivates him to chase his daughter, Lily (Dakota Fanning) out and find where she is and ‘rescue’ her for her own good. Lily (Dakota Fanning), instead of T. Ray, is the perspective with whom we see the narrative. She’s between the close-minded world of her dad’s and the matriarchal world that is tolerated and more secretly powerful. She eventually knows how to gain this power over her father. Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson, this movie shamefully under-utilizing an Oscar winner), the distraught one, is also between two worlds as Lily’s companion. They leave for a Pepto-Bismol coloured house in Tiburon, South Carolina where Lily’s mother once stayed. Her race is one of the factors that make us assume that unlike Lily, her bond with the women in that manor is easier to meet.
These new friends live in one of whom is the mansion’s owner, August Boatwright, (Belated Happy Birthday, Queen Latifah!). Latifah plays the maternal and soft one, only showing her edge and she and Lily talk about the latter’s mother who happens to be one of the children August took care of as a former black maid. August has a sister named June (Alicia Keys). We know she’s the mean one because she’s the mean one because she’s hostile to the newcomers as well as wearing the most make-up and the most tailored clothes in an already sartorially sharp family.
If this is going to fail in aspects of writing and directing, it also doesn’t succeed as an acting exercise with the exception of the third Boatwright sister May, the simple one (Sophie Okonedo). There are things about Okonedo’s performance that elevates it from two-dimensionality, the lower timbre in her voice stopping us from thinking that she’s just an overgrown child. But when something, like a gash on Rosaleen’s forehead or any mention of a sad or traumatic thing, the ticks and the mannerisms come out. There are no transition between these two spheres of her personality but that doesn’t mean that she makes it look jarring – she makes the attacks look seamlessly beautiful. This makes her the MVP in this flawed movie.