With a title like The Secret Life of Bees, I suppose bee metaphors are inevitable, so here we go. This film adaptation of a 2002 novel could sting like a bee or be as sweet as honey. As it stands, it’s a rather sticky mess with intermittent buzz.
We’ve got a decent performance from Dakota Fanning, who—now in her teens—is older than you remember her, but still not quite old enough to justify the old-soul demeanor that has plagued most of her early childhood performances. When her years catch up to the age of her personality, we’ll be seeing a new Meryl Steep. Until then, Fanning will have difficulty capturing the childhood innocence that would benefit characters like Lily Owens, a young girl plagued by the memory of accidentally killing her own mother at the age of four.
Raised by her strict widower father (an unrecognizable Paul Bettany), Lily runs away with Rosaleen (Hudson), the black housekeeper. Through a series of contrived circumstances, they wind up in the custody of August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her two sisters, who harvest honey from bees for a living.
The metaphor, to the extent it’s revealed by the film, is that undisturbed bees produce the best honey, while black women undisturbed by the turmoil of 1960s desegregation produce the best saccharine environment for Lily. Lily’s appearance, naturally, disturbs the balance of this utopian sanctuary, with mixed results.
Racial intolerance has been dramatized more heartbreakingly in countless other films, so most of the situations spawned by Lily’s arrival fall flat, except for one involving sister May (Sophie Okonedo), which will doubtless inspire tears in a few members of the audience.
Aside from these few dramatic spikes, the narrative is as calm as bees assuaged by a beekeeper’s smoke. We have Alicia Keys as a woman who can’t commit to her doting suitor and Queen Latifah as a matriarch sweeter than her buzzing livestock. It’s up to Fanning to bring the angsty heft that delivers the film to its climax, and she does so with a monologue written and spoken with poise beyond her years and, thus, beyond credulity. Age faster, Dakota!