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‘The Secret Life of Bees’

Despite minor shortcomings in the translation from book to screen, “The Secret Life of Bees” stands as an emotionally fulfilling trip to the movies.

“Bees,” based on the popular 2002 novel by Sue Monk Kidd, is a story about motherhood set in 1964 South Carolina. It opens nationwide today.

Director and writer Gina Prince-Bythewood, mostly known for her film “Love and Basketball” eight years ago, assembled a remarkably talented cast that doesn’t disappoint. Dakota Fanning stars as Lily Owens, a 14-year-old girl in search of memories of her dead mother, even as she must flee the abuse of her father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany).

Lily winds up at the home of three bee-keeping sisters, the Boatwrights, played by Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo (as August, June and May, respectively). The Boatwright sisters have issues of their own, but their home—and business headquarters of Black Madonna Honey—give Lily the sanctuary she desperately needs in her motherless world.

“Bees” winds in a bit of mystery as to how Lily might be connected to the Boatwrights, but that isn’t the film’s real draw. Rather, its attraction comes from the way it burrows into life’s deep questions, never wandering too far from how a single life must wrestle with them.

Central to this wrestling is how the Boatwrights practice their religion. They have church in their parlor and say “Mary full of grace,” but do so in front of a compelling statue of a Black Mary, her right arm outstretched, a heart symbol etched on her chest. Any who touch Mary’s heart appear to draw strength from the act, and here is where the literalness of the moment and image will make some pious viewers uncomfortable. Think “sacred feminine” of The Da Vinci Code expressed in the civil-rights-era South.

This is powerful and meaningful imagery—and good cinema. And if one locates the moment in the context of a girl without a mother and a minority without equality, then it makes complete and beautiful sense.

Queen Latifah owns the movie. When she first appears in the moment of Lily’s need, you believe everything will be alright. She embodies a presence as opposed to playing a character, which is what sets her August apart from the other sisters, who play character types (though they do so well).

August and the sisters are able to expand the notion of motherhood for the white Lily, but “Bees” commendably never veers into the “mammy” stereotype for these characters (though some think they do). Lily is accompanied by Rosaleen, played by Jennifer Hudson.

Rosaleen was T. Ray’s housekeeper who escapes with Lily, so her journey of course deals with power relationships among white and black women of the era. The Boatwright women, however, represent an altogether different portrait of African-American women.

Dakota Fanning holds up well with the older cast, which is nothing new for her. At times she shows flashes of Susan Sarandon—a good thing in my book. Paul Bettany is also effectively mean as her father.

A few scenes suffer from awkward pauses, as if Prince-Bythewood never quite figured out the best adaptation approach—at least for some of the dialogue and back-and-forth between characters. Hudson’s character falls out of the picture in the second half, and in general the film is sometimes hampered by the introduction of yet another pop song.

Overall, however, “The Secret Life of Bees” is strong enough to withstand these shortcomings—and warrant a ticket.

Cliff Vaughn is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and some violence.
Reviewer’s Note: A fair amount of bad language from the T. Ray character.
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Writer: Gina Prince-Bythewood (based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd)
Cast: Lily Owens: Dakota Fanning; August Boatwright: Queen Latifah; Rosaleen: Jennifer Hudson; June Boatwright: Alicia Keys; May Boatwright: Sophie Okonedo; T. Ray: Paul Bettany; Neil: Nate Parker.