When I left my screening of The Secret Life of Bees I felt comforted and content, and it took me a while to understand why: This movie calls back to older, Southern-set, empowering movies like Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes. Those films celebrate womanhood and the importance (and potency) of female friendship, all against the unique backdrop of the American South. The stories are beautiful and sentimental, with tragedy and heartache going hand-in-hand with love and humor. This is what The Secret life of Bees is like, while also including the tension of race relations in South Carolina in 1964 and a coming-of-age story. I've sometimes wondered mournfully if movies like these were no longer relevant or could not be made well in this day and age, so it is with relief that I report to you: They can, and have.
Dakota Fanning plays Lily, a 14-year-old girl in South Carolina whose mother died when she was young, leaving her in the care of an abusive father (Paul Bettany) and a kind housekeeper named Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). Lily decides to run away from her father and her small town, and she takes Rosaleen with her. Included in her mother's belongings, Lily has a piece of wood with an image of a black Mary holding a black infant Jesus and the name of a town written on the back. So, Lilly and Rosaleen head off for this town and discover that the image of Mary matches the labels on some locally-made honey. Further investigation brings them to a bright pink house where the honey is made. It's more than just a brightly-colored house, though, so read more.
The pink house is home to the Boatwright sisters: May (the magnificently endearing Sophie Okonedo), June (Alicia Keys) and August (Queen Latifah). The sisters take in Lily and Rosaleen, though the suspicious June doesn't think it's a good idea. In the peaceful Boatwright home, Lily learns the secrets to making honey — and secrets to her past. Lily also discovers the story behind the Boatwright sisters' attachment to the black Mary, and watches as the women pray to Mary and worship her. Of course, no place is a utopia (even a bright pink house), and trouble seems to follow Lilly wherever she goes. But in the end it's a sweet and soulful little movie with a strong message of hope.
From time to time the movie veers into some Hallmark-y schmaltz, but the issues of the times — discrimination, violence at the dawn of great change — temper any silliness. The setup (three black women with a successful business taking in a little white girl and her caretaker) is also bizarre enough within this time period to somehow negate the possible cheesiness.
Having read the book I had my own vision of this world and the movie is not far off from what I imagined. I was worried that the idea of a religion that worships Mary would come across as silly in the film, as opposed to powerful and comforting. To my relief, it all works fine onscreen. The beauty of this tradition and these women's beliefs is easily conveyed, and it rings as true as any sisterhood (thankfully without any screaming of "ya-ya!"). This truthfulness and comfort stayed with me long after the credits rolled.
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight