There are surprises (some good, some not as good) in The Secret Life of Bees. For me, the biggest shock of all was realizing that the actress portraying the lead 14-year-old protagonist was none other than formerly creepy child star Dakota Fanning. Don’t get me wrong, she’s definitely still a little spooky—there’s a preternatural stillness about the budding beauty, and her eyes convey a wise weariness that makes her seem older than she is. But it’s less startling now than it was, say, when she starred in I Am Sam or Man on Fire. Plus, there’s the fact that in this film it’s a plus for her to be a little haunted-looking, as she’s playing a young girl who (as we learn in the opening of the film) killed her own mother at the age of 4. And let’s not forget that Ms. Fanning is actually really talented, too.
Adapted from the acclaimed Sue Monk Kidd novel and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Secret Life of Bees is set in the civil-rights-era South. Ms. Fanning plays Lily, tormented by her guilt and living with her cold and abusive father (a fantastic Paul Bettany). After one particularly bad blowup, Lily and the family’s housekeeper (Jennifer Hudson)—who was beaten by rednecks when she tried to register to vote—run away to where Lily believes her mother might have come from.
This leads her to a bright pink house and honey maker August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), who lives with her two sisters, May and June. It was hard to figure out why the beautiful woman playing June looked so familiar until halfway through I realized it was Alicia Keys. This puts the musician-as-actor count on this movie at three, though Queen Latifah seems more at home on the big screen now than anywhere else, and her August is noble and nurturing. Jennifer Hudson doesn’t fare quite as well, and is overpowered by The Fanning during their scenes together. Ms. Keys has her moments, but she, too, is fighting in a different weight class when she shares a lot of screen time with the über-fabulous Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda), who plays May. The film tries hard to be about a lot of things: sisterhood, race, love, spirituality, healing and bees. There are plenty of genuinely moving moments, but the film teeters at times—for better or for worse, depending on what kind of viewer you are—into Lifetime territory.
The Secret Life of Bees opens Friday at BAM Rose Cinemas.
NOT AT ALL a Lifetime movie is The Elephant King, the feature debut from writer-director Seth Grossman. The movie is about two American brothers Oliver (Tate Ellington) and Jake (Jonno Roberts) Hunt. Oliver, a nerdy wannabe writer, goes to visit his brother—in debt and ducking the law—in Thailand and, instead of convincing him to return home, gets lured into a, shall we say, certain kind of lifestyle. A quick aside: What is it with dudes and Thailand, anyway? Isn’t there a new destination spot for hedonism by now? Anyway, there’re all sorts of unsurprising but probably meant to be shocking and symbolic scenes of prostitutes and transvestites and boxing and “funny” Thai covers of American hit songs, and it was all sort of hard to keep track of. However, the biggest mystery of all is how the filmmakers scored Ellen Burstyn to play the Hunts’ (think the surname is significant?) anxious mother. There should have been lots more of her and Josef Sommer (a.k.a. the bad guy from Witness), who plays their father. But, on the upside, there are lots and lots of adorable elephants!
The Elephant King opens Friday at Angelika Film Center.