By Roger Moore
The Civil Rights tale offers three great performances.
The thing about honey is that it’s not just sweet but awfully gooey.
That goes for the new film “The Secret Life of Bees,” too. Is the sweetness worth the stickiness in this maudlin “American Sisterhood of the Traveling Green Tomatoes”?
It’s a writerly coming-of-age piece set in the Civil Rights summer in South Carolina. But it’s also precious, self-conscious, a hug you give at arm’s length.
Dakota Fanning, awkwardly leaving her child-star days behind, is Lily, a 14-year-old whose last memory of her mother (Amy Adams) is of accidentally shooting her during a fight between her parents. Her sullen redneck father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany, very good), doesn’t know how to cope with her. Only Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), the housekeeper, understands the child.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just passed, and Rosaleen, brimming with pride, takes Lily with her to town so that she can register to vote and buy Lily her first training bra. Racists beat Rosaleen, and she and Lily flee to a town Lily knows only because its name is scribbled on the back of a picture of her mom. In tiny Tiburon, Lily tries to piece together what made her mother happy about this place years before.
That’s where she meets the Boatwright sisters, beekeepers, black women of culture and kindness. August (Queen Latifah) is the queen bee, June (Alicia Keys, more an exotic presence than an actress) is her testy cellist sister, and May (Sophie Okonedo of “Hotel Rwanda”) is the damaged sibling, a woman who feels every emotion so keenly that she has built a Wailing Wall behind their big, pink house.
Based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, “The Secret Life of Bees” is nicely anchored in a trio of very good performances. Bettany lets us see the pain and loss behind T. Ray’s hatefulness. Hudson starts living up to her “Dreamgirls” Oscar with a subtle turn here. And Latifah handles the beekeeping metaphors with ease. Life, she says, is like the bee yard.
“Don’t be afraid. But don’t be an idiot. Don’t swat. Above all, send the bees love, because every little thing wants to be loved.”
Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood did “Love & Basketball” years back, and she’s still working on the surface. There’s rich, if predictable, material here, but she can’t make it sing or give the bees the visual poetry that “Ulee’s Gold” had. It doesn’t help that the film has too much voice-over narration, read by Fanning, or that she’s grown up into a calculating actress determined to sexualize every tween role.
But for all the goo, “Bees” is still a wholesome and warm film about a girl finding acceptance at a time when black America was doing the same.