I resisted "The Secret Life of Bees."
Despite the appearance of what might be an Oprah "movie of the week," "The Secret Life of Bees" is a rich and rewarding, understated and intelligent adaptation of a novel by Sue Monk Kidd.
The film stars Dakota Fanning as Lily, a 14-year-old who has spent the last 10 years being raised by her single, abusive father...single because she accidentally shot her mother when she was four-years-old.
When her nanny, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), is beaten on her way to vote, she and Rosaleen run off to the nearby town of Tiburon, South Carolina and right into the household of the Boatwright sisters, August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo). The three sisters run a successful beekeeping business on their property, and they are quite successful given the limitation placed upon blacks during the civil rights era in which the story takes place.
It goes without saying, I suppose, that this journey will allow each character's story to unfold and the unfolding will involve joy, pain, learning and healing. I suppose, as well, we could call this predictable. However familiar the story, it unfolds with intelligence and tenderness in the hands of an ensemble cast that exhibits remarkable chemistry and a true understanding of the story and lessons to be learned.
Unlike other recent films centered around a primarily female cast, "The Secret Life of Bees" gels perfectly and allows each actress moments to shine.
Dakota Fanning continues to excel and, despite her misguided casting in "Hounddog," does a marvelous job here in a more balanced portrayal of a wounded child who blossoms in an atmosphere of love and respect.
Likewise, Queen Latifah avoids the rather obvious tendency to turn August into a rather matronly woman. Instead, August is portrayed as a compassionate, caring woman of strength and grace.
Jennifer Hudson, who received much acclaim for "Dreamgirls," is actually called upon to act and does so quite nicely here, while Sophie Okonedo gives her best performance since "Hotel Rwanda" as the emotionally fragile yet available sister. Alicia Keys and Paul Bettany round out a solid supporting cast.
Filmed in North Carolina, "The Secret Life of Bees" is beautifully shot and Gina Prince-Bythewood's direction is patient and assured. She wisely avoids an over-obsession with the racial understanding angle of the film preferring to focus on the naturally developed relationships that form between these young women.
A wonderful film for families, "The Secret Life of Bees" opens nationwide October 17, 2008.
by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic