The reviews of The Secret Life Of Bees have been mixed, swinging between quiet acclaim and charges of sentimentality amidst much eye-rolling and honey-based punning. A whiff of American schmaltz and my custom is to affix peg to nose and walk on by at conspicuous pace; although I don’t have much faith in most critics, I would have been inclined to weight the saccharine accusations with more cred and steer clear of this one. Happily, I scored a free ticket to the Perth preview. Happily, because this bribe overrode my mush detector system and cleared a way through the cynicism – this is a little gem of a movie.
A couple of days after I attended the local premiere, those two old crocs of cinema critique, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, reviewed this movie on their ABC TV show At The Movies. More on their findings in a moment, but here we come to an aside.
Once upon a long time ago, I was a compulsive movie goer, attending a minimum of 3 per week for a couple of years. Pomeranz and Stratton were already well entrenched as Australia’s most-watched movie reviewers way back then (surely, it’s past time to retire them!?), and like many others, I tuned in regularly. Often, they pissed me off with reviews that I felt were way off the mark. Stratton’s opinions, particularly, conflicted with mine almost as a matter of course. The last straw was his rave review of the Australian film Father. As I sat there in the Lumiere Cinema (now long gone) wincing at line after terribly written line of that dire movie, I felt angry that I’d assigned his opinion the slightest credibility. The only film I’ve ever walked out of is Greenaway’s tedious Prospero’s Books (I detest Greenaway), but I came damned close to exiting Father that evening. When the dreary thing had dragged its way to the credit roll, I resolved never again to bother watching Pomeranz or Stratton for guidance.
I tend towards obsessiveness, and stopped focusing so intensely on movies at some point. For a variety of reasons that don’t bear elaboration here, I went from movie tragic to occasional cinema goer. So out of touch was I that a few years ago I started watching Pomeranz and Stratton again…and enjoying their show! It helps not to have an opinion on the movies they review. You can forget about trifles like their taste and critical faculties and concentrate on their bristly relationship. It’s not bad entertainment watching Pomeranz digging in to assert her position against a dissenting Stratton, who is as controlled and staid as she is emotionally volatile and defensive.
Over the last couple of years, though, I have started regularly attending movies again, and now that I’m able to compare their responses with my own, my contempt for this dinosaur duopoly has returned with a vengeance.
Shit, they gave Slumdog Millionaire – emphasis on DOG – a 4.5 star rating ferchissake! The Reader, which I thought fell well short of excellence, they raved about, making special mention of its emotional power – it left me cold. Further, they joined the chorus of critics who have recently elevated Kate Winslet into the Great Actress category for her performance in The Reader. Yes, she was good, but her role was not a particularly complex or demanding one. Her character in Revolutionary Road (for mine, a far better movie, incidentally, despite its dodgy ending) – gave her the opportunity to push herself as an actress, and she rose to the challenge in fine style. That was the performance that should have won her an Oscar.
The topic of acting performance brings me back to The Secret Life Of Bees. Dakota Fanning puts in a dazzler in this one. She’s always been good, but kids almost always are, and child stardom is notoriously prone to unhappy endings – the Hollywood back streets of adult oblivion are strewn with prodigies who outgrew their childhood charm. Far from withering on the vine, however, Fanning is blooming into a truly extraordinary performer. Her portrayal of Lily, the lead character in Bees, is effected with an emotional maturity rare in actors of any age, and informed by an understanding of her character’s psychology that is nothing less than profound. This is one of those rare instances of an actor tuning themselves into their role so sensitively, inhabiting their character so completely, that that magical transportation takes place in which you lose your sense that there is any acting going on. The result is a performance that is an emotional tour de force. The movie is worth seeing for Fanning alone.
She is ably supported by the rest of the cast. Queen Latifah, in particular, brings a convincing maternal authority to her role.
But what of the complaints of sentimentality? Rather than defend this charge by merely offering my opinion with supporting evidence, I’m going to address Pomeranz and Stratton’s criticisms, which I think reflect a general problem with career movie critics. That is, they see too many movies, read too many insider mags, have personal interactions with too many actors and directors, and over time accumulate attitudinal baggage, expectations based on elements external to the movie being appraised, and a sort of viewer world-weariness that leaves them jaded and unable to give themselves over to a cinematic experience. Too often when they watch a movie they do so as a pro critic, which can get in the way of a ‘pure’ viewing of a movie, whereby it is assessed on its own terms, rather than according to this or that critical framework and set of expectations.
Consider the following comments:
(David Stratton) But on most levels the film, which has a surprising number of unconvincing details, takes the sugary option; it shies away from the harsher realities whenever possible. The result is, despite some strong elements, a distinct disappointment.
(Margaret Pomeranz) David, it was for me, too, because the film actually starts really harshly and, I think, strongly, and as soon as you get to that house – and kill the production designer – because it’s sort of like you move away from all the reality of the harshness.
Hmmm. So harshness is ‘real’ and should be the focus of a “good” movie, and anything else is somehow inauthentic (and syrupy by default, it seems)? What rubbish! Quite simply, these two duffers have missed the point of this movie, which is the story of an individual – the haunted teenage runaway Lily – as she searches for the truth about her mother (whom she lost in early childhood through a shocking shooting accident), led on by a yearning for belonging, acceptance and parental love. The ‘harsh reality’ Pomeranz and Stratton are so stuck on – the racism in America’s South at the time the movie is set – is merely the backdrop to Lily’s personal quest for redemption. And far from swerving away from the grim social and political milieu of the period, two brutal assaults by redneck thugs on black characters are pivotal points in the narrative, and are depicted with a violent realism that had me grimacing.
Besides, ‘harshness’ is not confined to socio-political contexts, as Pomeranz and Stratton seem to imply. The cruelty that Lily’s embittered, sadistic father inflicts on her, both physically and mentally, is hard to watch, not to mention the damage and anguish she suffers as a result. Her breakdown, when it inevitably comes, is heart-rending.
As is the tragic journey to completion of May, an archetypal sacrificial lamb figure who takes on all the suffering of the world after the death of her twin sister, and eventually succumbs to her impossible burden. Is May a ‘realistic’ character? No. She is a creature of literature. But that does not necessarily render her implausible in her transposition to the cinematic form…and here we come to the key to this movie. It is imbued with a literary quality, no doubt retained from the novel from which it derived – and that appears to have gone over the heads of a lot of the critics, Pomeranz and Stratton certainly included.
This is an old-fashioned movie, classically structured and crafted, and working in large part on a metaphorical level. The pink house that Statton and Pomeranz had such difficulty with, for example, worked fine for me because I interpreted it symbolically. Indeed, its figurative function was semiotically flagged when it was first introduced in the movie (evidently Stratton and Pomeranz missed this); a storekeeper describes the house as “pink, like Pepto-Bismol”. Pepto-Bismol is a pink medication, well-known in the States, that eases heartburn and aids digestion (hint hint). More obviously, pink = female = womb. And that’s what the house is: a safe female sanctuary away from the ‘harsh realities’ of the external world, but more…a place of nurture where Lily could work through her pain, heal, and deliver herself metamorphosed, reborn. Outside this symbolism, there is a practical rationale for the colour of the house: May chose it, finding it comforting, and mindful of her emotional fragility, her sisters indulged her. Plausible enough, innit? Certainly far more so than the ridiculous premise of Slumdog Millionaire, which Pomeranz and Stratton apparently had no trouble accepting.
Stratton’s whinge about the “surprising number of unconvincing details” in Bees is bemusing indeed (staggering, in fact, when you consider that Slumdog’s plot had more holes than a round of emmental!). It was one of the most coherent narratives I have encountered in a movie for some time! Chekhov’s guns are everywhere, ferchrissake! (Chekhov famously stated: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”). Plotting does not come much tighter.
The very title of the movie resonates with meaning that is projected back at you as it progresses. Queen Latifah’s beekeeper character, August (the queen bee of the hive that is the pink house), instructs Lily not to swat the bees, which will send them into a stinging frenzy, but to “send them love…every little thing needs love”. Hokey? If you bring a cynic’s baggage to the movie with you, yes. But not if you invest the lines with the literary quality that is intended and read them in terms of the movie as a whole, in which love is seen to heal and transform, hate and violence to beget more of the same.
By the time the movie concludes, the motivations of the characters have been revealed, and every piece of the narrative jigsaw has slotted into place to form a complete picture. This is partly what I mean by “old-fashioned”. Many contemporary films ignore or openly defy classic structural conventions; this one defers to them – and works admirably as a result, in my opinion. But while Lily ultimately transcends her background of abuse and “finds” her mother, and the other characters complete their arcs, this is not a happy-clappy feel-good Hollywood ending. It is bitter sweet, like life, yet resolved and satisfying, like a good novel.
It is de rigeur today, it seems, to cast a cynical eye on everything. For me, it was refreshing to encounter a movie like The Secret Life Of Bees that unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve. There is courage in that, in these days of the omniscient ironic voice. Impose a hardened critic’s weary perspective on Bees and like Stratton, Pomeranz and co, you will miss what it has to offer. Leave your cynicism at home, watch the movie on its own terms, and perhaps, like me, you will find it extraordinarily moving. At the very least, I can promise you a performance to remember from Dakota Fanning, who has come of age in Bees – emphatically.
Other reviews and movie-related articles by Rolan Stein: