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The Secret Life of Bees

Solid, yet Underwhelming, Adaptation of the Bestseller

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Secret Life of Bees, adapted and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) from Sue Monk Kidd's bestselling novel, is a sweet-natured yet occasionally contrived poignant coming-of-age film set in South Carolina in the weeks and months after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. The Secret Life of Bees also features watchable performances from an all-star cast of African-American actresses and former wunderkind Dakota Fanning transitioning effortlessly into teen roles, along with the positive, pro-tolerance, pro-family message that will move all but the most cynical of moviegoers.

An aspiring writer, Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), lives on a South Carolina peach farm with her abusive, distant father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany). T. Ray has never recovered from losing Lily’s mother, Deborah (Hilarie Burton), ten years earlier, who had attempted to leave T. Ray, but died in an accidental firearm discharge. Lily seems to have only one friend, Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson), an African-American woman who works as a housekeeper for Lily and T. Ray and a surrogate mother/sister for Lily. After seeing Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act on television, Rosaleen decides to venture into town and register to vote for the first time. In town, several racists assault her. And taking their word over Rosaleen, the local authorities arrest Rosaleen and take her to a nearby hospital for treatment of her injuries.

Desperate and unhappy, Lily decides to break Rosaleen out of the hospital and make for Tiburon, where she hopes to learn more about her late mother. When there, she discovers a connection between her mother and the free-spirited Boatwright sisters, August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), June Boatwright (Alicia Keys), and May Boatwright (Sophie Okonedo). Together, the three sisters run a thriving honey-making/beekeeping business. Lily manages to convince August to let her and Rosaleen stay with her and her sisters.

The Secret Life of Bees hits every recognizable dramatic and emotional beat found in novels and films centered on the Civil Rights era and the Deep South. African-Americans and their allies in the white community have to fight racism in all its forms, often risking injury or death to reaffirm basic rights. The racists in The Secret Life of Bees are ugly (physically and spiritually), mean-spirited, and violence-prone. Lily’s father, an authoritarian by nature, refuses to show even the slightest affection toward his daughter.

Unfortunately, The Secret Life of Bees lurches from one heavy, emotion-wringing moment to another, which, to be fair, may be exactly what some moviegoers want, but Prince-Bythewood’s reliance on stock situations and stock resolutions ultimately undermines what could have been a less heavy-handed melodrama. That Prince-Bythewood has Queen Latifah to sell the pivotal role of August Boatwright is to her credit. Queen Latifah conveys the usual earth mother wisdom and nobility with enough conviction to make you forget her character is, at worst, a caricature, at best, a stereotype (a positive stereotype, but a stereotype nonetheless).

Likewise with Dakota Fanning, convincingly conveying Lily’s moodiness, reserve, and hunger for a family where love is freely given and received and not treated as a precious commodity doled out in paltry increments (if at all). And while Prince-Bythewood’s screenplay relies too heavily on platitudes and implausible plot turns, at least she had the courage of her convictions and made the film she wanted to make.