Wracked by guilt over what she believes is her responsibility for the tragic death of her mother -- and running away from a distant father (Paul Bettany) -- 14 year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) takes off with her caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) and heads to the South Carolina home of the Boatwright sisters a place that holds many memories of her own mother’s childhood. She is immediately taken under their wing and bonds with August (Queen Latifah) the family matriarch who runs the enterprising bee farm on the property and teaches Lily the ways of the honey. There’s also the spirited June (Alicia Keys) a music teacher resisting the marriage proposals of the well-intentioned Neil (Nate Parker) and fragile and childlike May (Sophie Okonedo). In forging new relationships with these women a whole new world of self-esteem is slowly opened for Lily. For Dakota Fanning her performance in Bees marks a turning point into a new phase of her already impressive career and in Lily proves she is able to move effortlessly into strong teenage roles and more sophisticated material. She’s quite touching as a young Southern girl who comes of age with the help of some wonderful African-American women at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1964. Hudson also proves she can move comfortably beyond her Oscar-winning powerhouse debut in Dreamgirls. In Rosaleen she gives voice to a young black woman who is determined to exercise her right to vote for the first time but at a price. Latifah is warm and commanding and the Queen bee of this clan and her scenes with Fanning are nicely toned. In an unusual cast with lots of singers-turned-actresses such as Hudson and Latifah Keys also shows smart acting instincts even if her interpretation of June is a little on the flat side. Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) is simply wonderful and touchingly understated as the shy inward May. You wish there was more with her. Among the men Bettany takes a one-dimensional role as the demanding father and gives it some light while Parker (The Great Debaters) and Tristan Wilds as August’ godson and Lily’s new friend are spot on. Gina Prince-Bythewood who directs and smartly adapted the popular Sue Monk Kidd novel does go for the sentiment inherent in an old-fashioned story of this kind. But she also thankfully doesn’t pour it on. She creates a world in the deep South that doesn’t shy away from showing the harshness of life for African-Americans but whose lives at least politically are right at a major turning point. Most of all though she nurtures some lovely performances and brings an ensemble cast together with ease and heart. Prince-Bythewood whose breakthrough feature was the entertaining sleeper hit Love and Basketball clearly knows how to bring out the best in her actors. Secret Life of Bees elicits laughter and tears in equal doses proving to be the kind of not obviously commercial but uplifting movie-going experience rarely seen these days.
In February 2001 a highly regarded long-serving FBI agent was arrested for selling U.S. secrets to Russia over a period of 15 years; Breach tells his story as well as that of the man who spied on him. Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) the now infamous treasonist led a Jekyll-and-Hide lifestyle which the FBI would use to ultimately build up a case and arrest him. But first they needed a young hungry sly and innocent-seeming up-and-comer to gain Hanssen’s trust enough to just barely cause him to let his guard down. That’s where Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) comes in. O’Neill is just what his boss (Laura Linney) had in mind and she quickly clues him in: This is the “worst breach in U.S. history ” with Hanssen being responsible for countless American deaths and dollars and Hanssen’s a sexual deviant. But after spending long days by the agent’s side O’Neill sees nothing but a misunderstood man and wants to call off the mission. However after some more inside info from his boss and manifestations from Hanssen himself O’Neill is onto the cause even if it means putting his life at risk. Playing real-life people is much different from playing fictional characters because real people are extremely complex—neither exclusively good nor as in this case exclusively bad. That’s why veteran actor Cooper’s performance is so riveting and his acting so widely lauded: He lends so much humanity to a character he could’ve portrayed as a true villain. In fact his ability to humanize each of his characters—not only because he looks like an Everyman—is what makes him one of the best most credible actors of today. Whereas we’re supposed to object to Cooper from the moment he opens his mouth Phillippe is not supposed to be disliked. It’s hard not to the way he almost struts his attitude but the Crash star and former Mr. Reese Witherspoon turns in one of his better performances. The real O’Neill might not have looked like a male model but he must’ve been deeply conflicted and consumed by his mission and Phillippe conveys that much. However he still seems unable to hit some high notes. And Linney (Exorcism of Emily Rose) in a limited role adds sheer class and professionalism as is her career trademark. Writer/director Billy Ray will seemingly accept writing gigs for just about any genre (Hart's War Flightplan Suspect Zero) but he apparently has his heart set on nonfiction when it comes to directing. His rookie effort the ripped-from-the-headlines Shattered Glass evoked superb fly-on-the-wall tension not unlike Breach. Which isn’t to compare either movie to a documentary but both are executed rather organically and it speaks volumes about a director’s talent when he or she can pinpoint and articulate the intrigue of a true story as opposed to contriving a gimmick (i.e. camerawork or special effects) from a fictitious story to arouse viewers’ interest. Ray clearly has no interest in tricking viewers at all and yet Breach remains engrossing throughout. It’s the ultimate testament to the success of his no-frills filmmaking. It can be said that neither of the main characters is explored deeply enough but (a) that’s what books are for and (b) such is the constraint of the medium of (taut) film.