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Secret Life of Bees, The

Fox // PG-13 // February 3, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted February 28, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Dakota Fanning's first noteworthy performance might have come in the drama-heavy I Am Sam, but it wasn't until her heartrending turn in Tony Scott's ultra-stylized Man on Fire that she started to gravitate some serious attention to her acting abilities. She's built up this mini-starlet quality ever since, gaining momentum in a way that seems to foreshadow a great film career for the young actress in the vein of Jodie Foster post Taxi Driver. At fourteen, Fanning is at it again in The Secret Life of Bees, an adaptation of Gina Prince-Bythewood's adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's semi-autobiographical story about racism and maternal love in '60s South Carolina. The story's demeanor is as overly sweet as the honey harvested in the picture, but strong outings from an eclectic cast and a superbly docile visual design rustle up an admittedly stronger buzz for this hopelessly easy drama than anticipated.

Fanning plays Lily Owens, a sweet-natured girl who lost her mother at a young age due to an unclear shooting accident -- and deals with the borderline-abusive hostility from T. Ray (Paul Bettany), her peach-farming father, as a result. She only finds small flickers of comfort through handling some of her mother's old things and talking with her nanny/step-in mother Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), a dip-chewing black woman with equal parts cordiality and weathered gruffness. On Lily's birthday, the two of them wiggle around T. Ray's verbal nitpicks to go into town to register Rosaleen for the right to vote -- dressed up as a trip to "buy Lily a training bra" -- only to be met by three violent racists that send her to the hospital and, in a series of events fitting the time, have her arrested for her indiscretion.

Rosaleen's beating is enough for Lily to take action, and just enough for us to invest in their escape; with next-to-nothing to tell people outside of a flubbed story about an aunt to the north, she rushes into the hospital and whisks Rosaleen away in hopes of starting a new life. As they lay low in the South Carolina swamplands bickering about their path of action, it's near impossible not to empathize with Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Hudson in their thick, well-versed backwater personas. Hudson, the once American Idol contestant now famous for her Oscar-winning delivery in Dreamgirls, shows that she has a few more tricks up her sleeve than her one-note role as Effie, playing off of Fanning's all-too-easy tangibility as Lily.

The Secret Life of Bees poises itself as an adamant anti-racism story at the start, but it slowly reassure us that this aspect only supplements its more heartfelt direction -- diving into the facets of motherhood. Rosaleen and Lily soon find their way onto the footsteps of the Boatright honey farm, a bright pink country house plopped in the middle of dream-like scenery with sisters August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys), and May (Sophie Okonedo) as its busy little workers. It's a picture-perfect place for Lily and Rosaleen to grow, which slowly guides the film into a picturesque, nice and tidy transformation ground for Lily underneath the wing of collective motherliness. Perfumed by its own hive-scented charm, the process of Lily and Rosaleen seeping into the Boatright household as an apprentice bee-keeper is utterly effortless.

But that's part of the saccharine charm of Prince-Bythewood's picture, a Lifetime-style sap fest that's made better than it should be by an outstanding cast of strongly-adherent archetypes -- ones that seem more suited for Broadway than the silver screen. Part of the film's unyielding objective is to surround Lily with a womb-like aura that beams from her four female influences. Along with Hudson's strong effort as Rosaleen, Queen Latifah and Sophie Okonedo do a fine job of bringing the matronly August and the irrationally-emotional May to life. However, the most surprising performances come from the more unlikely sources; Alicia Keys, for one, does immensely well as the confrontational, closed-off typecast, appearing both domineering and emotionally resonant as June, while Paul Bettany comes across as near-unrecognizable as T. Ray. They all surround Dakota Fanning's sharp delivery as Lily with plenty of support, giving off viable impressions that we can see through the young actress' nuanced performance.

It also doesn't hurt that The Secret Life of Bees' cinematography compliments its picture-perfect setting with a stunning, dreamy visual design. While we soak in tender little moments between August and Lily as they tend the bee-hive, director of photography Rogier Stoffers (co-DP on Mongol, Disturbia) makes certain to keep with the tranquil demeanor that director Prince-Bythewood desires by exploring a deep, vibrant color palette. Since the film swings so heavily on engulfing a young girl's turbulent past with radiant warmth, the film's setting and the way it encompasses the characters is almost as important as their performances. Considering that the film was shot for around $11 million, it amounts to an immense achievement.

As this sumptuous portrait develops and the interweaving themes of racial adaptation and steadfast motherly love whip the film into a sweet lather, it trollops down familiar genre grounds by resolving every single conflict with a pretty bow tied on top. Watching the picture wrap with sweetness and sincerity around every last corner should be a crowd-pleaser for some, but it also spins quite a few weepy yarns at the close that tinker with the natural connections built between the characters. Thankfully, the relationship that we build with Lily isn't betrayed at the honey-soaked end of The Secret Life of Bees, a conclusion that closes the lid of an endlessly hopeful picture with an equally optimistic and endearing message that we could see coming from the first moments the Boatright sisters opened the door. Yeah, it starts to get kind of hokey once we get there and ends even more so, but at least the well-scripted acting and photography make it a resilient emotional sketch from start to finish.

The Blu-ray:

Note: This Blu-ray contains both the Theatrical and the Director's Extended Cut of the film. The two versions are 1:49:49 and 1:53:51 respectfully, which amounts to a difference of a little over four minutes of subtly added material.

Video and Audio:

Video and Audio: As stated above, The Secret Life of Bees sports a lot of stunning photography filled with bold colors and rich details. Fox's Blu-ray disc, a 1080p AVC encode of the 2.35:1 letterbox image, preserved every ounce of the film's striking beauty with intense precision. Though the colors are supple and spry throughout, there are rarely any noticeable occurrences of blooming. Strong detail is present, made obvious by the myriad of visible details in the kitchen such as plaid weave, paneling on the wall, and the etchings on teacups, and by the beehives, such as the wood grain on the hives themselves and the netting over the tender's heads. Skin tone and texture is also paramount, staying true and bold throughout without ever surrendering too much to the film's visual design. A subtle vein of grain is present, rendering a substantially cinematic look that completes the image. Foremost, there's no visible manipulation or edge enhancement, building this into an absolutely stunning Blu-ray image.

To compliment the fine visual treatment, a ample DTS HD Master Audio track has also been included. Along with being a visual treat, there's also a handful of striking audio elements at work -- such as Alicia Keys' character playing the chello, the swarm of bugs surround Lily and Roseleen in the swamp, and the crashing of jars in specific places. The audio treatment receives plenty of room to breathe, stretching many of these effects to the rear channels while allowing others to trail to the lower-frequency depths. One of the more impressive elements in the track is the ways that it shifts audibility and echoing properties when indoors and outdoors. It's a highly immersive environmental track, but it's also well-vocalized as well. There's only a few instances where verbal clarity gets mildly muffled, and even then it's possibly to discern what's being said. It's a fantastic supplemental track to the lush visual presentation, one that crafts a starkly complete filmic experience. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French, and Spanish to accompany the English DTS HD MAster Audio and Spanish 5.1 tracks.

Special Features:

Commentary with Producers/Director/Actors (Theatrical):
For six people present in this commentary, it starts out rather quiet! Director Gina Prince-Bythewood gets things going, guiding us through Lily's introduction, while Dakota Fanning follows her lead and tries to have some fun in the track. Producer Joe Picharillo offers the most "commentary-esque" material in this track, while they all try and sneak in interesting tidbits about the picture (how many eggs Pettany ate during the intro scene, the building of a creek, as well as Fanning and Hudson's reluctance to stop laughing during one of the more intense scene in the picture). It picks up speed later on as they grow more comfortable, discussing Fanning's methods and comparisons between the book and the film. Then it gets much more dynamic as the rest of the cast pours into the picture, featuring some entertaining quips from Latifah and Fanning as it progresses.

Commentary with Director Gina Prince-Bythewood and Editor Terilyn Shropshire (Theatrical):
However, if you're looking for a really insightful commentary for the film, this is it. Gina Prince-Bythewood and Terilyn Shropshire go to extroadinary depth about the picture. They discuss continuity with the clips, filming bee scenes during the dead of winter, and exactly how Gina Prince-Bythewood writes her favorite scenes of the film. They also get into the thick of character eccentricities as well, dissecting even minute maneuvers within the performances. It's a very strong, down-to-business commentary track that I enjoyed listening to.

Adapting: Bringing The Secret Life of Bees to Life (12:33, HD AVC):
Editing together film footage with interview time, we spend plenty of time with the producers, director, and author as they illustrate the process of bringing the film to screen. It's an earnest piece, one that only grows marginally praising of the source. It discusses how Gina Prince-Bythewood added extra scenes to the picture, Sue Monk Kidd's participation behind-the-scenes, and the way the two merged together to come up with a film that stayed true to the book's roots.

The Women and Men of The Secret Life of Bees (16:24, HD AVC):
This featurette focuses on the actresses and actors attached to the film. It explores Dakota's lack of experience working with women, the fact that Gina Prince-Bythewood got the actors that she desired, as well as the incorporation of Alicia Keys into the feature. Each of the actors participate in the interview time, doing spots of character regurgitation but also giving little added glimpses of the actors diving into their roles.

Inside Pink House with Sue Monk Kidd (10:13, HD AVC): The author of the book takes the audience through a guided tour of the Boatright house. She explains how the set design matches her ideas of the book, as well as how the characters interact with the individual little elements. She dives into the color blue, the history behind the "black Mary", and the ways that it all attached to the '60s.

Beekeeping 101 (7:33, HD AVC):
Here, we follow the actors as they train to handle beehives at the Bee School. It takes a hands-on approach in showing how they slowly inch the actors into the process of getting acclimated to operating with them. They learn bee biology, how to take the planks in the beehive out, and emphasize that you've got to wear a veil while around the bees ... or else.

Life on the Set (9:06, HD/SD AVC):
As an exclusive behind-the-scenes trip behind the camera, this featurette captures all of the life off-set -- showing the crew as they assemble the set/lighting, as they mess around with the foliage, as well as how Gina Prince-Bythewood integrates with the entire outfit. Some discovery pops up about a cold snap that occurred while shooting, as well as the myriad of colors they went through for the house.

The World Premiere (3:29, HD AVC)
To wrap things up, we've got a full-frame collage of press interviews and such of the premiere. Most of the stuff talked about has already been covered in all the other featurettes, but it's nice enough to see.

Also included are an array of Deleted Scenes w/ Optional Commentary (9:56).

Final Thoughts:

The Secret Life of Bees is specifically geared to pluck on heartstrings, but the well-fleshed characters and excellent cinematography from Rogier Stoffers make it a satisfying, sweeping experience. It captures the mood of the '60s in a splendid light, all while pouring out as much of the core themes, namely racial assimilation and maternal necessity, as it can. Though the overly sweet nature of the story and ease of conclusion will trouble some, it's still a warm picture that has plenty of good stuff inside to take away. Fox's Blu-ray sports gorgeous audio and visual properties, along with being packed to the gills with substantial supplements for lovers of the film, which makes this a Recommended presentation of a serviceable, amiable-enough melodrama.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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