Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Secret Life of Bees Buzzes Best In Its Laidback Sequences

Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), the lead character of The Secret Life of Bees, doesn't know who her mother was. Beyond the fact that she's responsible for inadvertently shooting her mom, Lily doesn't know a thing about her mysterious mom. Her father, T. Ray Owens (Paul Bettany), certainly won't tell her anything about her mom. That means Lily has got to find out for herself. Teaming up with her family's house worker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), Lily travels to a pink-colored house that she just knows is connected to her mom's past. The house is run by honey farmer August (Queen Latifah) and her sisters, June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo), who give Lily and Rosaleen a temporary place to stay while Lily tries to discover who her mom was.

If there's one common trait in the works of Secret Life of Bees director Gina Prince-bythewood, it's that she isn't afraid to just let her characters sit, talk and be themselves. Some movies are in a rush to get to explosions, noise, or any other form of chaos. Prince-bythewood, though, she lets things simmer through casual conversations, mellow vacations, and other excursions that allow the viewer a chance to get to know her characters. That's true even in Prince-bythewood's foray into action movie cinema, The Old Guard, so you better believe she employs it in the more restrained tearjerker The Secret Life of Bees.

Much of the runtime of this 2008 directorial effort from Gina Prince-bythewood is dedicated to just Lily, Rosaleen and the various August sisters being friendly and enjoying each other's company. I'll be darned if it isn't just thoroughly charming to watch. Prince-bythewood's script (adapted from a book of the same name by Sue Monk Kidd) has a good habit of showing these characters bonding through everyday means rather than just using clumsy dialogue to tell us that everybody is chummy with each other. For example, a scene of Bees' principal characters (even the stern June) romping around with a sprinkler turns out to be both entertaining on its own terms and a believable example of everybody growing closer to one another.

Emphasizing small-scale moments of bonding and joy between Black women also helps to make The Secret Life of Bees stand out from other American period pieces covering the topic of racism in the United States in the 1960s. Many mainstream films covering similar terrain tend to explore solely Black anguish for the purposes of explaining to a white protagonist that racism is actually not cool. Bees does have a white protagonist, true, but its approach to racial-related matters tends to have a lot more nuance. For one thing, the script incorporates the subtle detail of racism still thriving despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Whereas other films covering 1960s racism in America view racism as a thing of the past, Bees explicitly depicts that a piece of legislation cannot undo centuries of systemic racism that still persist

Meanwhile, unlike in, say, The Help, the Black characters of Bees are allowed to have a life of their own. This is particularly true of Rosaleen, who has an interesting character arc related to her finally being surrounded by a supportive Black community after years of being confined to just a white household. The Secret Life of Bees has an intriguing and unique approach to race in the mid-20th-century for a mainstream American drama. However, other aspects of Prince-bythewood's screenplay aren't quite as creative. Most notable among these derivative qualities is the eventual conclusion for the tormented character of May. Though it's supposed to be the kind of sizeable development that inspires instant sobs from the viewer, it's such a thoroughly predictable event that it just lands as corny instead.

A subsequent attempt to lend an inspirational quality to this tragic story turn is similarly par for the course. Credit where credit is due, though, at least The Secret Life of Bees handles this particular type of calamity better than It: Chapter 2 did. Meanwhile, the chilled-out scenes of everybody just hanging out at August's house are so enjoyable that one entirely forgets about T. Ray's presence in the plot. His abrupt resurgence in the final fifteen minutes doesn't feel as imposing as it should just because of his prolonged absence from the rest of The Secret Life of Bees. These clumsy qualities keep Bees from hitting the heights of Prince-bythewood's best movies. Still, Bees does manage to be a thoroughly charming movie that delivers its fair share of thoughtful storytelling and noteworthy performances. Could have used more Jerry Seinfeld though...

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