There are not many movies that strive to be pleasant. I’m not sure why this is, because aren’t we all, occasionally, if not often, in the mood for something pleasant? Instead, we get provocative, or powerful, or preachy; painful, pandering, or perplexing, but why not just pleasant? What’s wrong with pleasant?
Nothing, “The Secret Life of Bees,” proclaims proudly, nothing at all. Pleasant is a worthy goal. In fact, a movie can even incorporate some serious issues, like matricide and suicide, it can be set in a tumultuous, hateful and fear-ridden time and place, and still maintain its composure. It’s quite a feat, really.
“The Secret Life of Bees” is about a haven, a pseudo-magical place where the world can’t come in, and where everyone has everything they need. That place happens to be a honey farm in Tiburon, South Carolina. On the farm live three women – Queen Latifah, who is so regal I think she could make any place feel safe, as well as Alicia Keys, who plays the cello and has a sharp tongue, and passionate, fragile Sophie Okonedo. Okonedo writes prayers on little pieces of paper and tucks them into the holes of her own private wailing wall. She’s the kind of woman you want praying for you, though you worry sometimes if it’s good for her health.
Elsewhere, Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Hudson are a female version of Huck and Jim. When Hudson gets beat up (and, naturally, arrested) for trying to register to vote and Dakota gets tired of kneeling on grits (her father’s favorite punishment) they light out for better parts, in search of something about Dakota’s dead mom. Um, dead because her little girl accidentally shot her, that is. Guess where they end up? And guess who was there, many years before? “The Secret Life of Bees” asks you to believe a number of implausible (but not impossible) things, and you know what, I’m there. There is so much charm and grace and composure about the movie that, like a charismatic stranger new in town, I’ll believe a few of the implausibilities in its story.
What “Bees” never does is preach. There are maybe two brief moments when it feels a little overcooked, and besides that, director Gina Prince-Bythewood maintains a Spartan focus on simply telling the story. The restraint is Gandhian, and it saves the movie. It wouldn’t take much for a movie about people and honey to feel syrupy sweet, but “Bees” never – or rarely, rarely ever – slips.
It helps that she gets solid, underplayed performances from her actors. Queen Latifah mostly stands in doorways looking like a benevolent guardian angel, and it’s amazing how far that goes. Fanning shows her childhood acting prowess hasn’t gone the way of her baby teeth. Hudson isn’t given much to do, which is too bad, but she can’t exactly burst into song, either. Even Paul Bettany manages to play Dakota’s father as a bad man who wasn’t always so bad.
“The Secret Life of Bees” was pleasant. It wasn’t particularly moving or deep or provocative. It didn’t have to be. It carved out a little niche for itself and built a home there, much like its characters.
- if you just want to watch something pleasant.
- If you’re a fan of Sue Monk Kidd’s books. Which are also pleasant.
- if you’re looking for provocative, powerful, or profound.
- If you’re unwilling to grant a movie a few implausibilities, no matter how charming it is.