I get why Dakota Fanning keeps getting offered these motherless waif roles in Southern-fried melodramas. Those saucer eyes, that lunar pallor, the Georgia accent, the guts to rat her hair into a dull mat and skulk around in shabby rooms that scream my-daddy-drinks. What I don't get is why she keeps taking them.
Not that "The Secret Life of Bees," Gina Prince-Bythewood's high-minded and expensive-looking adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's bestselling novel, exists on the same plane as "Hounddog," the scrappy little howler otherwise hysterically (and speciously, it turns out, but that's show business) known as "the Dakota Fanning rape movie." On the contrary, what's being sold here is the movie equivalent of the honey-drenched sweet potato biscuits that are forever being passed around on-screen. Their nutritional value may be nil, but they sure look comforting.
"The Secret Life of Bees" offers a consoling fantasy, or rather several consoling fantasies -- among them that a lonely adolescent fleeing her unhappy home might, if she's lucky, land without much effort squarely in the generous bosom of a family of beautiful strangers kinder, more loving and infinitely better art-directed than her own. Set in the South of the 1960s, the story unfolds against a backdrop of utter down-home gorgeousness, in a place where racism, when it occasionally rears its head, takes everyone a little off-guard.
Fanning plays Lily, a melancholy 14-year-old who's been told her whole life that she killed her mother when she was 4. Her furious father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), refuses to indulge Lily's pleas for stories about her mother, so she sneaks off at night to dig up the little tin of stolen memories she keeps buried in the yard.
Lily's only friend in the world is her housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), and on the day the Civil Rights Act is signed into law, she accompanies her into town so Rosaleen can register to vote. And wouldn't you know it, who should they encounter along the way but a mob of racist good ol' boys?
Next thing you know, Lily is busting Rosaleen out of a prison hospital and the two of them are hitching to Tiburon, a town whose name Lily has found written on the back of an image of a black Madonna among her mother's things. The image turns out to be the label of a local brand of honey, manufactured by a Miss August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), the eldest of a clan of three sisters.
Miss August, the beautiful, chilly June (Alicia Keys) and the sweet, simple-minded May (Sophie Okonedo) live together in a big pink house on a huge plot of land that might as well be Brigadoon, it's so idyllic and enchanted and self-sufficient and hidden from the world. If the sisters' way of life poses any kind of problem for the local bigots (the black Madonna on the honey label, the big pink house), you'd never know it. The farm is so far removed from the world's troubles, in fact, that Miss August's young godson, Zach (Tristan Wilds), asks Lily to the movies and honestly fails to see what comes next.
Lily and Rosaleen blossom in this hothouse environment. Lily because she experiences what it's like to be mothered for the first time, Rosaleen because she's shown a different life than she had imagined was possible for a black woman.
The charismatic Latifah is as warm and expansive as ever, but in her casual Friday khakis and modern businesswoman confidence she feels anachronous and out of place. She has carved out a niche as a sort of comforter of the afflicted, and although she wears her sainthood lightly it would be nice to see her do something different.
The beekeeping business, which Miss August patiently teaches to Lily, provides the sister a handsome living as well as all kinds of opportunities for metaphors about insect life as it relates to ours. ("See, the world's really just one big bee yard . . . .") And the movie is full of lines like that. When, early on, Rosaleen admonishes Lily not to get her hopes up when they first knock on Miss August's door, the girl replies, "They got nowhere else to go." The thing is, we do.
"The Secret Life of Bees." MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material and some violence. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In wide release.