Talk about an odd mix: civil rights, racism, motherhood, mental illness and beekeeping. But ignore the twee title and the schmaltzy tagline – “Bring Your Girlfriends, Sisters, Mothers and Daughters” – because this is a decent enough drama which proves, among other things, that Dakota Fanning is one of the better young actresses around right now and Paul Bettany doesn’t need to dress up as a monk to be scary.
When she was four, Lily (Fanning) accidentally shot her mother. Aged fourteen, she runs away from her redneck father T. Ray (Bettany), taking her housekeeper and only friend Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) with her. Rosaleen has been beaten up by white racists, arrested and then beaten some more – this is 1964 and while the Civil Rights Act has just been signed, the Deep South isn’t paying much attention. A postcard that belonged to Lily’s mother leads them to the house of the Boatwrights, a trio of beekeeping sisters: August (Latifah), May (Okonedo) and June (Keys). Lily becomes an assistant beekeeper while trying to come to terms with her mother’s death, interspersed with some hokey religious scenes. Then there’s the civil rights thread running through the film, plus May’s mental health problems which stem from the death of her twin sister.
The end result is a strange hybrid: part sickly-sweet but watchable exploration of the ideas of motherhood, guilt and love, part brutal exposition of the deeply-ingrained racism that meant the Civil Rights Act was basically a piece of paper and nothing more, plus various metaphors involving bees and honey. At times there are too many themes jostling for space. Somehow, though, it works, from the contrast between T. Ray’s coldness and August’s loving warmth to the weight of Lily’s anguish over her mother’s death. One thing’s for sure: Fanning is definitely one to watch.
EXTRAS *** There’s a commentary with director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood, Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah and a couple of producers; a second commentary with Prince-Bythewood and editor Terilyn Shropshire, which has the most behind-the-scenes insight; eight skippable deleted scenes with optional commentary from Prince-Bythewood and Shropshire; The World Premiere which does what it says on the tin; The Women and Men of the Secret Life of Bees, which looks briefly at the characters; Adaptation: Bringing The Secret Life of Bees to the Big Screen; and Inside the Pink House with Sue Monk Kidd. The Blu-ray, only released on Region 1 so far, also includes an extra featurette called Beekeeping 101.