“The Secret Life of Bees” may have an explanation for the mysterious decline in the bee population: Bees just aren’t getting enough love these days.
They’re smothered with it in the big-screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel. Bees are like family to these characters. However, the film is set in 1964, decades before bees started disappearing, so love may not be enough to repopulate their world.
It certainly is a life force for Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), who’s dying from a lack of it in her small Southern town. As she turns 14 in July 1964, she’s haunted by memories of her mother’s tragic death 10 years earlier and plagued by questions her cold, menacing peach-grower father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), won’t answer.
After racist whites beat up Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), the Owens’ black housekeeper, Lily sneaks Rosaleen out of a hospital room under the nose of a deputy. Lily knows her mother had some connection to Tiburon, S.C., so they head there and find refuge with the Boatwright sisters, August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo).
The sisters have a gracious home and thriving honey business; cellist June teaches music at a school. August makes Lily her bee apprentice and has Rosaleen help May in the kitchen. The newcomers begin to feel comfortable and safe, but Lily still won’t reveal the real reason she left home.
The plot doesn’t so much twist as undulate; there are no huge surprises. That’s not what “The Secret Life of Bees” is about. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote the screenplay, has crafted an insightful, warm human story that incorporates a sensitive girl’s coming of age, the complex dynamics of family, the egregiousness of racism, the efficacy of the civil-rights movement, the uplift of religion and the power of love.
All the actors are on target, but Fanning is superb as the teen tied in knots of guilt, and versatile Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) gives an inspiring performance.
Latifah, Hudson and Keys all have segued into acting from music, and their natural, honest performances prove this side of their talent. The director doesn’t go out of her way to remind us where the three came from, but at one point they’re standing side by side and it hits you: Latifah. Hudson. Keys. It’s a summit of superstars.
While the film is female-centric (Hilarie Burton plays Lily’s mom in flashbacks), the men shine, too. Bettany fights the impulse to explode as he makes T. Ray something besides a monster. Tristan Wilds is winning as Lily’s new friend, Zach, and Nate Parker commands respect as June’s beau, Neil.
“The Secret Life of Bees” is a reminder that humans have a long way to go, but they’ll get there faster if they work together. Kind of like those buzzing insects.