Based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, "The Secret Life of Bees" would pass for a pleasant Lifetime movie. As a theatrical feature, it only elicits a tepid emotional response. Would-be tear-jerking moments are plentiful, but they don't work. Every plot development is telegraphed in advance, and the characters, many of them overly idealized and downright saintly, aren't multifaceted enough to come alive for the viewer. It's apparent every step of the way where this one is going.
The setting is rural South Carolina, circa 1964. The Civil Rights Act has just been passed in Congress, and the country is now in an unbalanced state, folks clinging to the old ways of the past as a more modern, progressive future nips at their heals. 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) and her best friend and caregiver Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) watch the announcement on television, the latter suddenly empowered with the knowledge that she has the right to vote like everyone else. Lily, however, is unsettled, and has been ever since she was four years old and accidentally killed her mother (Hilarie Burton). Living unhappily with bitter father T. Ray (Paul Bettany) and plagued with inner guilt, she and Rosaleen go on the run. They don't have any money and no real game plan, but Lily is intrigued when she hears about well-respected local honeymaker August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her two tight-knit sisters May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys). When Lily asks for a place to stay in exchange for work, August warmly welcomes them. Suddenly in a place where she feels like she belongs, Lily nonetheless comes to find that no matter where she goes, the memories of her past will always haunt her unless she makes amends with herself and lets go of what she cannot change.
"The Secret Life of Bees" was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (2000's "Love & Basketball"), who treats the material with a gentle hand and doesn't shy away from the racial cruelty and narrow-mindedness of the time period. If the historical backdrop which the film is set in is well-portrayed, it is the shaggy-dog plotting that is the problem. Lily's personal story and conflict might have been touchingDakota Fanning (2006's "Charlotte's Web
") gives it her all in the rolebut her journey toward finding a place in the world and people who show her love in return is handled with the strained construction and obvious fabrication of something that might be found in a screenwriting handbook. The same could be said of the Boatwright sisters, beautiful people through and through whose purpose, as far as one can tell, is solely to act as Lily's saviors.
As the picture leisurely ambles along, segueing from melodramatic moments to frolicking by way of montage sequences and earnest ballads, it takes time out to concentrate on uneven, mismanaged subplots. The interracial friendship between Lily and Zach (Tristan Wilds), who lends a hand at August's beekeeping business, is smartly low-key while making its point, but the squabbling romance between June and Neil (Nate Parker) is a waste. Neil isn't fleshed out at all as a character, and their relationship seemingly boils down to Neil wanting her to marry him and June not ready to take the plunge. While June's ultimate decision on this matter might be representative of women from their era, it actually signals a step back for June's struggle to retain her independence. When T. Ray finally locates Lily, as he must, their confrontation with each other is effectively played, but familiar. Again and again, we sense that we've seen this before.
Dakota Fanning, for a long time our best and most acclaimed child actor, is blossoming just as Jodie Foster did into a marvelous grown performer. There isn't a false note struck in Fanning's turn as Lily Owen, only honesty and remarkable intuition. As August Boatwright, Queen Latifah (2008's "Mad Money
") is matronly and tenderhearted, and Sophie Okonedo (2007's "Martian Child
") is just right as the delicate, painfully sensitive May. Alicia Keys (2007's "The Nanny Diaries
") is more difficult to take a liking to; she's fine with what she does, but, like June, there always seems to be a wall around her chilly sentiments. And, as Rosaleen, Jennifer Hudson (2006's "Dreamgirls
") proves here that she is a formidable acting talent even when not singing at the same time. It is unfortunate that Rosaleen slides into the background so quickly, but she is impressive in every moment she's onscreen.
"The Secret Life of Bees" showcases a tip-top cast and bucolic cinematography by Rogier Stoffers (2007's "Disturbia
"). Other technical credits are strong, and the film keeps your attention for the duration. From a dramatic standpoint, though, the picture leaves you kind of lukewarm and untouched. The machinations of the screenplay are always willfully grinding awayone story point that aims to connect Lily, her late mother and the Boatwright women is so convenient that it can't be believed for a secondand the final destination that these characters reach is pat and predictable. Expectations aren't usually quite as high watching a television movie in the comfort of one's home, and that is the format that "The Secret Life of Bees" should have been developed for.