Love and family may not be able to overcome everything, but you couldn't prove that by The Secret Life of Bees, a refreshingly clear-headed film version of Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling novel (and high-school reading-list staple) that soars on the strength of strong acting and a script that stubbornly refuses to go all sappy and preachy.
Set in the early-'60s South, at a pivotal time when the civil rights era is going to either take hold or be forced into submission, the story centers on 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), a motherless child whose abusive father sees her as little more than a convenient punching bag.
Lily is haunted by memories of her mother and the circumstances surrounding her death. About the only thing that sustains the girl is the conviction that her mother must have loved her, and when her daddy (Paul Bettany) calls even that into question, Lily realizes the only thing left for her to do is leave.
Being 14 and not exactly worldly, of course, Lily has no idea where to go. Desperate, she finds direction in a trinket her mother left behind: a black Madonna, with the name of the town of Tiburon, S.C., on its back. She also finds companionship in the guise of her surrogate mother, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), a black worker on her daddy's farm who days earlier had been beaten and jailed for trying to register to vote.
Once they reach Tiburon, Lily and Rosaleen find their way to the home of the Boatwright sisters, a proudly independent trio of black women.
Eldest sister August (Queen Latifah) maintains the family's beehives and cultivates the honey that has become the family business. Middle sister June (Alicia Keys) is proud and suspicious, a fiercely intelligent woman wary of a society determined to keep black women in their place. Both women are understandably protective of their manic-depressive younger sister, May (Hotel Rwanda's Sophie Okonedo), who has never recovered emotionally from the death of her twin sister.
There are plenty of secrets for Lily to uncover in Tiburon, some of which strain the story's credibility. But there's an honesty of emotion at the story's heart that the film never betrays.
Much of the credit goes to Latifah, whose character sees something in Lily her sisters don't (or won't). True, the role isn't exactly a stretch for an actress making a career of playing dignified black women who refuse to either kowtow or openly rebel against a clearly wrong-headed world. But Latifah makes unyielding patience and preternatural strength a most watchable virtue.
Hudson still seems uncertain on-screen, at least when she's not singing; she earned her Oscar for Dreamgirls but has yet to prove herself beyond that role. Not so Keys, whose steely resolve makes June both intimidating and, when her vulnerability begins to show, sympathetic.
Fanning, struggling to get through the adolescent years that have torpedoed the career of many a child actor, grows into her role. Not surprisingly, for a girl who's always played wise beyond her years, she doesn't do naive or ignorant well. But as Lily grows in both wisdom and, more importantly, understanding, Fanning becomes more and more comfortable with the part.
Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) is confident enough in her ability to let the story tell itself, without any goosing from her.
The Secret Life of Bees puts something of a high-gloss sheen on times and struggles that were far harsher than the film suggests. But the narrative seems true to the thoughts and perceptions of its teen protagonist, a girl who's become something of a hero to an entire generation. That's not the sort of character or story one messes with unnecessarily.
The Secret Life of Bees
(Fox Searchlight Pictures) Starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys. Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Rated PG-13 for some violence. Time 110 minutes.
online watch a preview and see more photos from The Secret life of Bees at baltimoresun.com/movies