Film going is a bit like eating. If you read the menu, know what you're eating, and choose what you're eating, chances are you'll be happy.
Some films will give you quite a shock. "Saw V" with its violence and horror is like a habanero pepper or a warhead candy. Pop it in your mouth and you'll recoil. Some people can appreciate that experience.
"The Secret Life of Bees" is like the food central to the film: honey. It's gooey, sweet, and thick with sentimentalism. Know that, except it, and embrace that aspect of the film and you're in for quite a tasty treat.
Based on the bestselling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, "Bees" takes place in 1964 South Carolina and features Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning,) a girl raised by her abusive father T. Ray (Paul Bettany) and black housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson.) Lily never knew her mother Deborah (Hilarie Burton) and her history and death are surrounded in mystery and the lies of her father.
The combination of Rosaleen's assault at the hands of a group of white men and another act of her father's abuse prompts Lily to run away. The two, almost reminiscent of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and the escaped slave Jim, flee across South Carolina. Lily is in search of information about her mother and has only a few clues, one of which is a picture of a black Madonna.
When, during their travels, the two wanderers see the picture on a jar of honey they are informed that the product is produced by the trio of Boatwright sisters. Armed with directions to the pink Boatwright home Lily and Rosaleen pay a visit and request shelter in exchange for work. The three sisters August (Queen Latifah,) May (Sophie Okonedo,) and June (Alicia Keys) welcome Lily and Rosaleen.
Upon arriving Lily and Rosaleen are amazed by the Boatwright home. The family's successful honey business has granted them independence and financial security. August runs the business and acts as head of the household. June is a music teacher and can often be heard playing her cello. Together they and their friends work to comfort and tend to the emotionally unstable May. Aside from the strength of their family they find comfort in the church services they hold in their home in which they embrace a mythology of a black Madonna that stands in the middle of the room as a life-size wooden statue.
This family, along with its two new adopted members, will rely on one another as they struggle with several challenges and tragedies.
The film certainly has an almost Hallmark, made-for-TV quality to it - and not so much in its production values or the quality of its actors but rather in the style of many of its dramatic moments. Some of the sequences with Fanning in which she breaks down and starts crying just do not have the emotional weight the filmmakers no doubt wished they had. That's not to say the film doesn't manage to squeeze out a few tears, though, it just doesn't earn them like it should. It tugs at our emotions more through the mere fact of the situations instead of the strength of the storytelling.
The film is more a fable than a drama. It has its very clear conventions and predictable structure and chooses more of a sentimental reality than a dramatic reality. The characters aren't really people due to their one-dimensionality. T. Ray, the villain of the story, has the opportunity for depth and humanity, but instead he's just made into a stereotypical abusive father. Similarly we've had protagonists like Lily many times before - the smart semi-orphan who's seeking to understand her history. We've had supporting characters like Rosaleen before who don't get the opportunity to develop into people beyond their relationship with the protagonist. The type of aggressive, somewhat conflicted character of June is as familiar as the benevolent, all but perfect August. And because these characters are so recognizable as stock figures, I interact with them more as artificial constructions instead of actual people. It's not drama, it's gooey, emotional sentimentalism.
That laid out on the table, though, I still really loved the film. It's still a wonderful experience to sit in the Boatwright household and to just immerse oneself in this world of honey, family, the black Madonna, and this moment in history in which a people overcame racism. The performances - particularly of Latifah, Okonedo, and some of the supporting characters - are very enjoyable. (Fanning is the exception. I have yet to join the bandwagon that sees her as the next Jodie Foster.)
I tolerate the film's sentimentalism for the same reason I tolerate the formulaic plot of many comedies and the unrealism of many action films. A familiar frame is acceptable as long as the film has enough interesting, successful elements to produce an enjoyable experience. And "The Secret Life of Bees" does. I only wish it had decided to bring out those elements more, specifically the black Madonna and bee material.
One might not want to make honey the staple of one's diet but once in awhile it's certainly a wonderful treat and I look forward to spending more time with the Boatwright sisters with repeat viewings.