A wonderful film about family, independence and the transcendent power of love, "The Secret Life of Bees" brims with honest emotion without spilling over into cheap sentimentality. Adapting novelist Sue Monk Kidd's acclaimed coming-of-age novel, screenwriter-director Gina Prince-Bythewood evokes a turbulent moment in the life of a girl, and in the history of our nation.
The time is 1964, the ink on the Civil Rights Act barely dry, and the letter of the law ignored by racists in Jim Crow South Carolina. Fourteen-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) and her harsh father T. Ray (Paul Bettany) have shared a combative relationship in the decade since her mother was killed. Lily's steadiest source of care is Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), a kind, stubborn housekeeper who acts as a substitute mother and best friend. When T. Ray's belligerence erupts, Lily and Rosaleen leave home, setting out for nearby Tiburon, where Lily's few keepsakes of her mother suggest she'll find answers about day her mother died.
What they find is much greater than they expected. They're taken in by the Boatwright sisters, who live in a Pepto-Bismol pink home and operate the finest apiary in the region.
Over the course of a summer, the girl learns the role the Boatwrights played in her life years earlier. The sisters are a formidable team. August (Queen Latifah) is the matriarch, guiding the household affairs with a sure, steady hand. June (Alicia Keys) is aloof and politically engaged, a Black Power activist wary of the white teenager. Childlike, emotionally fragile May (Sophie Okonedo) accepts the newcomers immediately. The affection and friction between such temperamentally distinct siblings is an eye-opener for Lily, who is convinced that she is unlovable. August teaches Lily to tend the beehives with the love that every living thing requires, and gradually shares secrets about her late mother's past, helping Lily take the next step to maturity.
It's not all milk and honey, however. Lily develops a crush on a cute African-American boy, and their first date at a movie theater teaches them a painful and frightening lesson about intolerance. Shaken and saddened but wiser, Lily is ready to take the next step on her journey to adulthood. The mentoring is handled with unforced, homespun wisdom.
Fanning gives a strong, assured performance as Lily, who is as self-absorbed and petulant as she is good-hearted and brave. There are moments when her emotions seem forced, but anyone who has seen a 14-year-old girl in the midst of a tearful meltdown will recognize that element of overacting in real life, too. She's evolved by the finale, toughened but still tenderhearted. Hudson, whose acting has been stilted in "Dreamgirls" and "Sex and the City" takes an impressive leap forward, giving us a proud but underpriveleged woman determined to fulfill her potential. In fact, there's hardly a performance onscreen that isn't transfixing. Plan your weekend around this one.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186