One of the great challenges facing artists is the occasional necessity of staring into the face of pure evil. It’s a test for a filmmaker to be able to present the Nazi commandant of a concentration camp, say, or a shotgun-wielding Klansman without resorting to cartoonish, exaggerated, over-the-top portrayals.
Sadly, that’s where Gina Prince-Bythewood gets tripped up as the writer-director of “The Secret Life of Bees.” Bringing Sue Monk Kidd’s novel to the big screen, Prince-Bythewood gets a lot of things right, but every time a mouth-breathing redneck pops up to torment one of the movie’s African-American characters, “Bees” loses a dimension.
Still, the film has lots to offer. Dakota Fanning (who you’d think would be skittish about playing another Southerner after the debacle of “Hounddog”) stars as Lily, a South Carolina girl who accidentally shot her beloved mother when she was just four years old. With only the drunken, bitter T. Ray (Paul Bettany) to raise her, Lily bonds with the family housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson).
After President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Rosaleen goes to town to register, only to be confronted by three angry racists. When she dumps tobacco juice on their feet, she is beaten savagely and arrested. Lily springs Rosaleen from the hospital, and the two take off for Tiburon, the name of which is written on the back of an icon of a black Madonna, one of the few objects belonging to Lily’s mother that the child still has.
That iconography is also featured on the jars of honey produced by August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), whom Lily and Rosaleen turn to for sanctuary once they arrive. August’s musician sister June (Alicia Keys) is dubious about the newcomers, but the slightly simple May (Sophie Okonedo) insists that they stay.
At its best, “Secret Life of Bees” feels like an American spin on the wonderful Dutch Oscar-winner “Antonia’s Line,” about a utopian matriarchal society that stands apart from a world in chaos. The women help and support each other — and Lily falls in love for the first time with the charming Zachary (Tristan Wilds), but this being mid-1960s South Carolina, you just know their teenage interracial relationship is bound for rocky times.
There’s a lot of Oprah’s Book Club–style healing going on in the film, with family secrets brought to light and hard hearts being softened, but Prince-Bythewood and her cast find moments of honesty amidst the personal growth.
Old pros Fanning and Latifah are just fine in roles that match their strength — precocious, strong-willed youngster and soft-butch sage, respectively — and Hudson continues to emerge as an arresting screen presence even in non-musical roles. Okonedo keeps May from being too precious or simpering, but it’s Keys who’s the real surprise here. Sexy, stentorian and funny, she’s a natural; a wise producer should cast the feline Keys in an Eartha Kitt biopic, stat.
It’s the larger picture of the South in the civil rights era that seems to be beyond the filmmaker’s grasp; all the men in the film are either sensitive nice guys or closed-minded blowhards. And while there was no shortage of the latter at that time, surely there were people whose opinions weren’t just, you’ll pardon the expression, purely black or white. Paul Bettany is a fine actor, but he can’t keep T. Ray from being a stick-figure meanie, and he’s actually the most interestingly presented of the small-town racists.
And that’s a shame because, at its best, “The Secret Life of Bees” is a terrifically entertaining, two-hanky, coming-of-age, world-as-we’d-like-to-see-it fable. Too bad the best parts throw the worst moments into such sharp relief.