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Movie Review: The Secret Life of Bees

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Dakota Fanning must be stopped. I’m serious.

The scenery-chewing 14-year-old has engaged in her fair share of histrionics in her films up to this point, but never has it been so overwrought and never has it been so obnoxious as in The Secret Life of Bees, a racial tension drama based on the bestselling novel by Sue Monk Kidd.

Fanning plays Lily, a girl whose mother died tragically and whose father has an anger problem he deals with by forcing her to kneel on a pile of grits on the kitchen floor, shredding her knees. Lily has plenty of reason to be troubled, but subtlety has never been on Fanning’s radar and she plays it with a typically overacted series of emotional breakdowns.

The film is set in the racially charged South Carolina of the ‘60s, and Lily runs away from home with her caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) after Rosaleen nearly gets beaten to death by several white men.

Lily leads them to a remote town where she believes her mother once lived, and desperate for shelter, they come across the home of the Boatwright sisters, August, June, and May (Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo.) Originally women in their 60s in the book, their ages have been cut in half in the film to bring aboard some more marketable stars to play their parts.

August is a beekeeper, and the family is involved in a honey-making business that has given them the kind of prosperity Lily has never even seen. She takes Lily under her wing, showing her how to care for the bees and making her an integral part of the honey operation.

It may be a lazy metaphor, but the entire screenplay is coated with the same kind of sweet, sticky honey that the Boatwright sisters produce. On the saccharine scale, this one falls somewhere around the sweetness-induced coma level.

If having your heartstrings yanked on perpetually for nearly two hours is your thing, The Secret Life of Bees is your kind of film. This is a movie that makes no pretense about its goal to emotionally manipulate the audience, and I can respect that. In this regard, Fanning was the perfect casting choice – her acting and the guidance she’s been given by many directors has been nothing but an exercise in manipulation. Fortunately, the older actors give their characters a little more nuance, even if the screenplay doesn’t offer much.

Latifah anchors the film with a solid performance, even though her character description probably said little more than “a kindly black woman” and Keys is good as the bitchy sister, but it’s Okonedo who really stands out in an emotionally driven performance that thankfully shows some restraint. Jennifer Hudson, who hasn’t gotten a decent role since her Oscar-winning debut in Dreamgirls, kind of gets pushed to the side though, and finds herself without much to do.

The Secret Life of Bees knows exactly what its target demographic is, and I’m sure those that fall within it will come out in droves. It’s the kind of movie that has a built-in audience who will give it nothing but glowing reports as long as it strives to be inspirational and leave its audience with a happy feeling. The Secret Life of Bees holds up its end of the bargain. Just be prepared for that inevitable stomachache that comes as the result of too many sweets when it’s over.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.