The Secret Life of Bees

20th Century Fox
Movie •••• Picture •••• Sound •••½ Extras •••½
The Secret Life of Bees has already been pigeonholed as a "women's movie." It deserves better. Director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood has made an elegant film of Sue Monk Kidd's elegant novel.

The mostly excellent ensemble cast is wise beyond its years - from Dakota Fanning, who was 14 when the movie was made, to Queen Latifah, who slips effortlessly into the role of a matriarch without the usual heavy-handed Hollywood makeup. By necessity, Prince-Bythewood has pared away most of the beekeeping details that are peppered throughout the novel, but she manages to maintain all the metaphorical power of the hive and its inhabitants.

Set in the South in the days following President Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act, the movie comes to DVD at a perfect time in the cultural and political history of the United States. Yet its themes are universal, as Lily Owens (Fanning), a traumatized adolescent who longs for the mother she lost at the age of 4, finds a trio of strong women who provide the love and emotional nourishment she needs.

The film is reasonably challenging from a technical standpoint, and the transfer looks as good as standard DVD gets. Much of the action takes place in a pink house in a scenic South Carolina town. With its unique coloring - itself a multilayered metaphor - the home is harmonious with its surroundings yet still stands apart from them. The contrast is something of a visual tightrope act, but the DVD gets it right. The shingles on the roof, the woodwork on the porch steps, and even the craggy stone wall on the lawn reveal plenty of image detail and subtle color separation. The filmmakers were probably tempted to go for more intense colors and a juiced-up contrast ratio to really drive home the thematic elements, but in choosing subtlety over big money shots, they made the right choice.

Similarly, the overall sonic design serves the story well. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is content to keep most of the action in the front. There are some nice, realistic pans from side to side as people enter and exit the house, but the surround channels are mostly reserved for the occasional ambient effect (a hint of wind in the trees, a truck ignition firing up in the distance). As is often the case in a character-driven film, the most compelling sonic moments are left to the music tracks. Soulful songs by Lizz Wright, co-star Alicia Keys (who's a bit out of her depth as an actress), and others have excellent presence and dynamics while complementing the overall emotional tone of the movie.

The extras package is generous. Included are four featurettes that cover casting, set design, and general making-of tidbits. You also get two commentaries, both featuring Prince-Bythewood. In the first, she's joined by Latifah, Fanning, and two of the producers, who form something of a mutual-admiration society. In the second, she's paired with editor Terilyn Shropshire, and together they provide a bit more in the way of technical details and production nuggets.