MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The Secret Life of Dakota Fanning

This is a difficult column to write because it’s about some delicate issues like exploitation of minors and minorities, but I definitely believe I’m giving these things more thought than the makers of The Secret Life of Bees. It’s a fine line when you’re making a film about exploitation and racism to not actually be exploitative yourself. It just goes to show that even if you have the good intentions of making a film that will shine a light on an important historical issue, it takes a deft touch to really make it something meaningful.

More than anything, though, what got to me the most when watching the film was that this was the second straight film – after Hounddog – in which young Dakota Fanning has been sexualized. It would be one thing, too, if these were films about a young woman finding themselves and thus, their sexuality; but instead, the subplots that involve her and sex are tangential to the plots of both films. And it really got me wondering about whether or not this is symptomatic of the world we are now living in.

Let’s face it, we live in the type of world where the love life of a fifteen-year-old pop star like Miley Cyrus is tabloid fodder. I mean, honestly, I didn’t even care about who fifteen year olds were dating when I was fifteen, why would anyone possibly care? And who would publish private photographs that an underage kid took of herself if not for the pleasure of those individuals that would be so inclined to gawk at those types of things.

But back to Fanning and The Secret Lives of Bees. Here she is in a film that is ostensibly about racism in the South in the early 1960’s and her desire to find out more about her mother – and to a certain extent, herself. Lily has an abusive father (Paul Bettany) and she believes that she murdered her own mother when she was four. She’s a young teenager now who has become the woman of the house, tending to her father’s needs even though he belittles her and punishes her any chance he gets. After the brutal attack of their housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) by some racist townies, Lily and Rosaleen flee to a honey farm hundreds of miles away.

The farm is run and tended to by three sisters: August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo). Much soul searching and spiritual awakening ensues as Lily learn from August how to mine honey from bees while May cooks and June plays her cello.

It’s easy to see that the film is well-intentioned and at times it is cloying in its sweetness. But once again we are presented with a scenario where the black characters, who are shown struggling for their freedoms, are really here to help out the sole white character. They are all given subplots, including June’s ongoing fights with her boyfriend, but really they are all there to provide a family for this poor little white girl. And I have to wonder what kind of message director Gina Prince-Bythewood is trying to send here.

Prince-Bythewood had previously directed the underrated Love and Basketball, which presented an African-American relationship in a beautiful and tender way, devoid stereotypes or pretention. She had just crafted and created a real, loving, profound relationship and it was a wonderful film. It’s amazing how this time around she misses the mark so completely and instead of giving us a characterization of African-American women that is powerful – which is clearly what the intention is – she gives us something that, if it were directed by a white person, would seem racist. And it’s not that the characters are presented as having any flaws, but that’s kind of the problem. I hate to say it, but what Prince-Bythewood has done in this film is given us a fully developed white character and four “magical negro” characters to surround her and give her advice and support. It doesn’t help that May is played by the talented Okonedo at times as being slow – she often cries and has created her own “wailing wall” in the backyard – while at others she seems perfectly intelligent and normal.

Throughout the film, however, the way in which Fanning is sexualized really gets creepy. Perhaps it’s just that we’ve seen this girl grow up, but I found myself immediately uncomfortable from the first scenes, when she is walking around in a tank top without a bra on. It’s not something I was looking to notice, but I couldn’t help it. Then later on, we have a scene where she sucks honey off an older boy’s (Tristan Wilds) finger. What makes me struggle with that scene is that I know in real life, Fanning was thirteen when she shot that and this isn’t something that can be faked or simulated and it’s not something as innocent as a kiss (which she does later in the film). This is a situation where a thirteen-year-old girl had to literally wrap her lips around an eighteen-year-old boy’s finger. I’m sorry, call me a prude or an old geezer, but that’s not something that I want to see and it horrified me more than any Sawmovie ever could.

Even without these unsettling elements, this is a film that doesn’t have a single scene in it that feels real. This doesn’t feel like the South in the ’60s, this feels like Hollywood’s interpretation of those events. It’s a distinct lack of verisimilitude mixed with an overwhelmingly saccharine additive.

The upsetting part is that there is clearly a lot of talent both behind the camera and in front. Latifah and Okonedo have been much better elsewhere, namely in the films that got them Oscar nominations, but even in lesser works. Latifah, in particular, is someone I find watchable even when she’s making a film like Last Holiday or Mad Money; she brings an energy to her roles usually that lights up the screen. But here, Latifah seems oddly sedated like she’d been slipped a valium before each take. And Okonedo is all over the place with a performance that zig-zags wildly. Keys is fine, but not very memorable and Hudson does what she can with a thankless role. Bettany’s Southern twang is laughable in places, but he does bring the menace.

But Fanning is really the whole deal here and this film is supposed to be a showcase for her talents. It’s always hard to make the transition from child actor to grown-up star, but it seems like she’s trying to get there right away and she’s still so young. She’s clearly talented beyond her years, but she shouldn’t be in such a hurry to grow up like every other girl her age in Hollywood. But if she does want to make a film about blossoming sexuality, there are other ways to go about it. I’m thinking in particular of a film like Paranoid Park which uses a young teenager actress, Gossip Girl’s Taylor Momsen – also Fanning’s age – in a scene where she loses her virginity to the main character. The scene, however, is done very tastefully and there isn’t even the simulation of sex. And yet in this so-called “family” film, Fanning is more sexualized than Momsen is in a Gus Van Sant “indie” film.

Maybe I’m just a fuddy-duddy, maybe I don’t get what the kids are like these days and I understand that any kid involved in Hollywood isn’t really a “kid” anymore. But filmmakers, gossip columnist and moviegoers don’t have to give these kids any more ammunition to shoot themselves in the foot. I’m sure most folks probably won’t take offense to this film and truthfully, I’m surprised I did as I’m usually fairly blasé about these kinds of issues.

Do I think permanent damage will be done to Fanning or any of the young girls who watch this film because there was a scene of her sucking honey off a boy’s finger? No, probably not. But if I’m uncomfortable when watching that scene, then I have to think there’s relevance in that feeling. And if I think it through rationally and bring it back to the larger societal issue of our media’s strange fascination with young girls, then I have to think this: everyone should grow the hell up and move on to the trials and tribulations of the adult world. There are plenty of stories to be mined about youth’s burgeoning sexuality, but those parts can be played by older actors if there are scenes that involve overt touching that isn’t limited to just kissing.

The Secret Life of Bees isn’t a film that will inspire this much thought for most of the people that see it because it’s not a particularly thoughtful film. But for those who do think about what is shown to us within those frames of film, I hope you’ll think about it for a moment before forgetting the film entirely.

– Noah Forrest
October 14, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon