All clogged up with honey

The Se­cret Life of Bees ( M)

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

IHAVEN’T read the 2002 novel by Sue Monk Kidd on which The Se­cret Life of Bees is based but I won­der if it is as un­con­vinc­ing as the movie Gina PrinceBythe­wood has made of it. Prince-Bythe­wood, like most of the film’s char­ac­ters, is an African-Amer­i­can, but in so many de­tails I found it dif­fi­cult to be con­vinced by this evo­ca­tion of small-town life in South Carolina in 1964, the year pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son signed the Civil Rights Act into law. This law gave African-Amer­i­cans the right to vote and ended the most bla­tant forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion, such as seg­re­gated pub­lic build­ings, in­clud­ing cin­e­mas; but the changes didn’t hap­pen overnight, and a great many white south­ern­ers were quite pre­pared to break the law to make sure that, at least for a while, noth­ing would change.

That’s the back­drop to the story of 14-year-old Lily Owens, who is played by the pre­co­ciously tal­ented Dakota Fan­ning. Since, at age seven, she brought some dis­tinc­tion to the oth­er­wise wretched Sean Penn ve­hi­cle I am Sam, this con­fi­dent young ac­tor has im­pressed in di­verse projects such as The Cat in the Hat and War of the Worlds . Now she’s a teenager and old enough to re­ceive her first ( chaste) screen kiss. I sup­pose it’s an in­di­ca­tion of how far things have come in 45 years that the kisser is an AfricanAmer­i­can, Tris­tan Wilds. Fan­ning, for those not aware of her, is white.

The film be­gins with a night­mar­ish scene in which, at age four, Lily ac­ci­den­tally kills her mother. In the suc­ceed­ing years her an­gry and em­bit­tered fa­ther ( Paul Bet­tany) has re­peat­edly told her that her mother aban­doned them and had re­turned on the fa­tal night to pick up some things — Lily is cer­tain she must have re­turned to col­lect her — and that dur­ing a strug­gle over a gun, in which the lit­tle girl tried to come to her mother’s as­sis­tance, the fa­tal shot was fired.

Ten years later, Lily hates her fre­quently bru­tal fa­ther and can’t wait for an ex­cuse to run away from home. The op­por­tu­nity arises when their house­keeper Ros­aleen ( Jen­nifer Hud­son) goes to the nearby small town to reg­is­ter to vote and is beaten up by red­necks. The pair flees, head­ing for the nearby town of Tiburon where Lily is cer­tain she will find a clue to her mother. The clue leads to the ex­pan­sive and ram­bling house on the edge of town, painted in shock­ing pink, in which the Boatwright sis­ters live.

Hav­ing gone along with the film un­til now, I was trou­bled by the Boatwright home. Per­haps such a place could sur­vive and flour­ish dur­ing a pe­riod of in­tense dis­crim­i­na­tion against blacks, but — as pre­sented in the film, at least — it didn’t seem con­vinc­ing.

Au­gust Boatwright ( Queen Lat­i­fah) is an earth mother who seems quite a bit older than her sib­lings, May ( Bri­tish ac­tor So­phie Okonedo) and June ( Ali­cia Keyes). There was, we dis­cover, an April, May’s twin, but she died, and May has never re­ally re­cov­ered from the loss; she’s what used to be called ‘‘ a bit sim­ple’’.

The Boatwrights earn a liv­ing from the pro­duc­tion of honey, but Au­gust seems to be the only one who does any work around the place. June is a surly mu­si­cian and civil rights ac­tivist who keeps her ar­dent boyfriend at arm’s length, and May isn’t called on to do much be­cause her mood swings are so un­pre­dictable. When the fugi­tives ar­rive, the gen­er­ous Au­gust takes them in, and be­fore long they take on a great deal of the work­load.

Like the honey Au­gust spends so much of her time col­lect­ing, the film is very sweet, too cloy­ingly sen­ti­men­tal for my taste, and at times too melo­dra­matic. I haven’t seen PrinceBythe­wood’s other fea­ture film, Love and Bas­ket­ball ( 2000), so it’s hard to say if th­ese el­e­ments stem from the writer-di­rec­tor or the orig­i­nal source ma­te­rial or both. The film is cer­tainly hand­some to look at, and there are some strong per­for­mances, notably Fan­ning and Keyes, whose mar­riage-shy ac­tivist is po­ten­tially the most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter. The film much prefers, to its detri­ment, to wal­low in Au­gust’s cosy hom­i­lies.

* * * THE reg­u­lar com­plaint, not al­ways jus­ti­fied, about Aus­tralian films th­ese days is the lack of a good screen­play and Beau­ti­ful is a good ex­am­ple. The ti­tle cer­tainly re­flects the look of the film; Kent Smith’s Scope photography is one of its main as­sets. Dis­ap­point­ingly, though, the var­i­ous el­e­ments in­tro­duced into this con­tem­po­rary sub­ur­ban drama fail to come to­gether in any co­her­ent way. The film is the first fea­ture di­rected ( and writ­ten) by Dean O’Fla­herty, who pre­vi­ously made his mark as a dis­trib­u­tor of in­de­pen­dent lo­cal films. He claims, in the sketchy press kit pro­vided, to have been in­flu­enced by some of the hot-but­ton films of re­cent years: Blue Vel­vet , Don­nie Darko , The Vir­gin Sui­cides , Amer­i­can Beauty , Dis­tur­bia .

Such con­nec­tions are all very well, but though O’Fla­herty demon­strates some skill in cre­at­ing sus­pense­ful sit­u­a­tions, the film is ul­ti­mately a let­down be­cause he seems not to know how to wrap it all up in an in­ter­est­ing way.

Daniel ( Se­bas­tian Gre­gory), the nerdy, friend­less 14-year-old son of a po­lice­man, lives with his fa­ther ( Aaron Jef­fery) and step­mother ( Peta Wil­son) in the sub­urb of Sun­shine Hills. A hardto-hear voice-over ex­plains that three lo­cal high school girls have been ab­ducted, but no­body seems ter­ri­bly con­cerned and pre­co­cious 17-yearold Suzy ( Tahyna Tozzi) still sun­bathes on her front lawn in full view of passers-by.

Af­ter dump­ing her boyfriend, this ob­nox­ious young woman per­suades an in­fat­u­ated Daniel to ‘‘ find the se­crets’’ in the street, and es­pe­cially to solve the mys­tery of No. 46, where a mys­te­ri­ous woman in white ( Asher Ked­die) spends a lot of her time gaz­ing out of her front win­dow on to the street and her hus­band or pos­si­bly part­ner ( Socratis Otto) seems to be some kind of evil­doer, maybe a se­rial killer.

Per­haps it was O’Fla­herty’s in­ten­tion to cre­ate an un­easy world of doom and men­ace in an or­di­nary sub­ur­ban set­ting, and at first he achieves this quite well. De­spite some ir­ri­tat­ing flaws — a cou­ple of off-key per­for­mances, a good deal of overem­pha­sis — the film does, for a while at least, in­trigue. Grad­u­ally, though, what started off as in­trigu­ing turns an­noy­ing as it be­comes clear that the ul­ti­mately lu­di­crous nar­ra­tive is go­ing nowhere very in­ter­est­ing.

O’Fla­herty is ob­vi­ously a fan of David Lynch and is fas­ci­nated by the idea that ter­ri­ble, evil things are go­ing on in the houses that bor­der an or­di­nary sub­ur­ban street. There’s no doubt that Beau­ti­ful is am­bi­tious in its aims but, un­like Lynch at his best, O’Fla­herty is, in the end, un­able to de­liver the goods. For all its qual­i­ties, and they’re not neg­li­gi­ble, his film is pro­foundly un­sat­is­fy­ing, and the mu­sic score by Paul Mac is not much help.

Over­dose of hom­i­lies: Tris­tan Wilds and Dakota Fan­ning in The Se­cret Life of Bees

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