How far we’ve come

Dakota Fanning shines and shows us how things have changed since the early ’60s

The Secret Life of Bees
Starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Feather River Cinemas, Paradise Cinema 7 and Tinseltown. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

Dakota Fanning is growing up. The loveable little girl from I Am Sam is now 14, like the character she plays in The Secret Life of Bees. And her maturity shows, driving the film and giving us a glimpse of Hollywood’s next starlet.

The film, beautifully directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball), is based on Sue Monk Kidd’s 2002 best-selling novel about Lily, a teenager growing up with an uncaring father (Paul Bettany) in early-'60s South Carolina. With the Civil Rights Act recently passed, the South is abuzz with racial tension. And after a particularly bad experience between a group of white men and Lily’s housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), the two run away, in search of answers about Lily’s mother.

Their quest leads them to the doorstep of August Boatright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters, May and June (played by Sophie Okonedo and Alicia Keys). They’re strong, cultured black women, and they take the runaways in, in exchange for help with the housework and August’s honey-making business.

Lily, whose notebook scribblings narrate the film, hopes to find closure for the death of her mother, when she was just 4. She finds comfort in the motherliness of August and the emotions of May, and strength in the independent diva June. The bees also play a big role, and as Lily helps August tend to their hives, she learns a little bit about life.

At times, Lily sounds decades older than her 14 years. But then again, she’s been through a lot. Fanning shows she can play a truly complicated character here, someone who doesn’t always make the right decisions and is forced to live with the consequences.

Latifah, on the other hand, while she’s surely a powerful presence, doesn’t quite seem old enough to play the wise-woman role. And Hudson and Keys, whose performances are perfectly passable, take a backseat to Okonedo in her emotional portrayal of the simple-minded May.

The Secret Life of Bees is a bittersweet film that, as we’ve just elected America’s first black president, reminds us of how far we’ve come in the past 50 years.