Strong 'Secret Life of Bees' Boasts Big Names

Photo: This is how we do it. August (Queen Latifah) shows Lily (Dakota Fanning) the bee-keeping ropes in 'Life of Bees.'
Sidney Baldwin/Courtesy
This is how we do it. August (Queen Latifah) shows Lily (Dakota Fanning) the bee-keeping ropes in 'Life of Bees.'

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Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Love and Basketball") and based on the novel by author Sue Monk Kidd, "The Secret Life of Bees" boasts a gifted female cast composed of vocalists-turned-actresses (Alicia Keys, Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson) and enough drama to provide ample opportunities for bawling. At its best, "Bees" is a honey-tinged Southern fantasy nourished by tear-jerking precious moments, tragedy and dark civil rights context.

It is 1964, the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and young Lily (a charming Dakota Fanning, growing into her trademark precociousness) already carries a lot of emotional baggage. She accidentally killed her mother as a child and grew up on a peach farm with a harsh, unloving father whose idea of punishment involves the imaginative use of grits. British actor Paul Bettany plays the part of a Southerner quite well, becoming the South Carolina farmer down to his scowling drawl.

Fortunately for Lily, she has a caring nanny to fill the love gap in her life: Rosaleen (Hudson, proving she's still sassy). But when Rosaleen gets into a violent scuffle with racist townspeople, Lily ditches her abusive daddy and flees with Rosaleen to nearby Tiburon. The town holds a clue to Lily's mother's past-and thus, more filler for the gaping emotional hole in her life. The duo eventually comes upon the Boatwright sisters, three successful beekeepers who open their home to them. Each has her own defining quirks. There is sweet but depressed May (Sophie Okonedo), cold, stiff June (Keys) and motherly August (Queen Latifah).

Both Lily and Rosaleen grow to love the trio during their stay and vice versa. Lily even falls in love with August's cute helper, Zach (Tristan Wilds). But with love always comes drama: Daddy doesn't stay away forever and neither does the looming intolerance that defined the decade.

Oscar-nominated for her part in "Hotel Rwanda," Okonedo provides the stand-out performance of the bunch. Her May bounces between sadness and smiles with an incredible subtlety that make it hard not to choke back a sob whenever she reacts to bad news. Keys is perfectly tough and a bit scary as June. As for Queen Latifah, it took me awhile believe her as August Boatwright instead of simply Queen Latifah wearing granny glasses.

Despite the many cliche life lessons about race that usually occur when someone calls Lily out for naive comments (Lily offends Zach by asking if he wants to be a football player, to which he responds, "I want to be a lawyer"), there is a noticeable attempt to create a genuine portrayal of race relations. For almost every stereotype acted out on screen, there is a line that tries to challenge it. During a conversation about a nanny's love, for instance, it's readily acknowledged that a black caretaker's love for a white child is not exactly a surrogate mother, "Corrina, Corrina" fantasy. It's complicated, especially during such "a hateful time."

Of course, there is also the question of why a story surrounding a black ensemble cast needs a white person in the title role. Perhaps it has to do with marketability. Nevertheless, it is an issue to bring up with the author, not the filmmakers. "The Secret Life of Bees" is not the epitome of a smart and thoughtful take on race, but it is still well-executed in its own right-a chance to appreciate a group of talented actresses in one place and have a pretty good cry while you're at it.

Bring an extra box of tissues with Patrici at [email protected]

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