All clogged up with honey
The Secret Life of Bees ( M)
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