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Toronto Film Fest: 'Secret Life Of Bees' lands

September 5, 2008 | 11:29 pm

"The Secret Life Of Bees," which had its world premiere here in Toronto on Friday night (preceded by a press screening in the morning), presents an intriguing and unusual dilemma for its distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures.

An adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name by Sue Monk Kidd, the film stars Jennifer Toronto_secret_bees Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Queen Latifah, Paul Bettany and Dakota Fanning. Written for the screen and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who previously made the critically well-received "Love And Basketball," the film tells the story of a teenage (white) girl in the deep South in the early '60s who runs away from a troubled home life with her (black) housekeeper and finds sanctuary with a trio of (black) sisters who run their own homemade honey business.

It's what's in those parentheses that's part of the dilemma, something that says much about the racial distinctions that definitely still exist in how films are marketed and exhibited.

The film is an earnest, straightforward three-hankie melodrama about a little girl growing up and overcoming a turbulent past amid a loving and accepting group of women. Fanning gives a remarkable performance that marks a further step in her transition from cute kid to genuine actor. (The career markdown that seemed to follow the misstep of "Hounddog" -- being reviewed by your humble narrator in a week or two upon finally seeing commercial release -- notwithstanding.)

So what's the problem with "Bees," you might reasonably ask?

It could come down to choosing between money or prestige. If the distributor decides to market toward the African American themes in the story and its strong and popular African American performers, they could likely blow it out in theaters as a faux Tyler Perry flick and rake in hefty returns, although that route would likely burn the film out of theaters quickly.

The option is to play up Fanning, the film's literary pedigree and the awards-sheen of the Oscar-winning Hudson and Oscar-nominated Latifah and go for a longer-playing awards run. The hazard is that the nominations (and ticket sales) may not necessarily follow.

Do the distribution options need to be mutually exclusive? Of course not, but amid the current climate of film distribution -- fast-back turnovers vs. struggling prestige pictures -- it could lead to essentially running multiple campaigns for the same film.

-- Mark Olsen