Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, Paul BettanyStudio/Run Time:
Fox Searchlight, 110 mins. Sappy adaptation has heart in the right placeThe big-screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller The Secret Life of Bees is commendable not because of what it is, exactly, but what it refuses to be. It is sentimental, but not overly melodramatic.
It is sincere, but not necessarily corny. Bees
is a fantastical tale that typifies a time of grim realities, filled with strong performances that (mostly) sidestep theatrics and clichés.
Dakota Fanning plays Lily Owens, a young girl who flees from her abusive father (Paul Bettany) alongside her housekeeper (Jennifer Hudson) in 1964 Civil Rights-era South Carolina. Lily's pining to be closer to her deceased mother brings her to the doorsteps of the Pepto-Bismol-colored home of the three beekeeping, honey-harvesting Boatwright sisters: August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo).
"I never met Negro women like these," Lily says. "They're
so cultured." The matriarch-like August eloquently extols in the story of the black Virgin Mary, a symbol of hope, strength and motherhood. The temperamental June plays Bach's cello suites in her spare time, and stubbornly avoids the advances of an admirer. The fragile May finds comfort in her wailing wall, ridding herself of emotional burdens through spare scraps of paper.
Lily lies to the sisters in order to gain safe haven in their honey house. Desperate for a mother, she clings to any inkling of love, of which her newfound surrogate mothers provide plenty. But a white girl living with African-American women in the '60s-era South doesn't stay secret for long.
For a movie filled with "big" plot developments, the film thrives on its quieter moments, thanks to the acumen of writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Its emotional climax comes from a straightforward scene where Lily and August thumb through a box of her mother's possessions: a shiny, whale-shaped pin; a brush with strands of hair still caught in its bristles; a black-and-white photograph of mother and daughter in a warm embrace. Fanning's expressive, sky-blue eyes well up with gratitude, silently communicating more than an audible "thank you" ever could.
With her burgeoning adolescence nakedly on display, Fanning dominates the film. The Secret Life of Bees may be intermittently trite, maudlin and predictable, but its 14-year-old wunderkind star is anything but.