The Secret Life of Bees belongs in part to the troubled genre of “magical Negro” stories, in which a white protagonist is somehow enlightened or rescued by a particularly special black person (Jim in Huck Finn is an early example). But happily, Sue Monk Kidd's novel and its adaptation by Gina Prince-Bythewood avoids stereotyping and easy answers, presenting a coming-of-age story that goes easy on the life lessons and forced moments of racial understanding. Crowded with vibrant characters and a wealth of talent, Secret Life of Bees is cuddly enough for Oprah but never cloying, a refreshing take on the more standard, calculated stories of female empowerment.
Dakota Fanning stars as Lily, a 14-year-old who grew up only with her abusive father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany, a surprisingly convincing Southerner), after she accidentally shot her mother at the age of four. When Lily's nanny Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) is beaten by a white mob one her way to register to vote, Lily takes the opportunity to run away from home. She and Rosaleen make their way to the nearby town of Tiburon, South Carolina, where Lily's only remaining mementoes of her mother suggest she'll find a home.
That's precisely what Lily finds at the Pepto Bismol-pink home of the Boatwright sisters, a trio of black women who run a beekeeping business on their property. The oldest, August (Queen Latifah), immediately accepts Lily into her maternal embrace, while youngest sister June (Alicia Keys), a burgeoning Black Power activist, is more skeptical of the white runaway. Also in the house is May (Sophie Okonedo), emotionally damaged by the death of her twin sister some years earlier, who forms an immediate bond with Rosaleen.
The story then follows a series of episodes with each character, as Lily tentatively falls for August's godson Zach (Tristan Wilds), June repeatedly turns down proposals from her boyfriend Neil (Nate Parker, as charming here as he was in his breakout Great Debaters role), and Lily slowly decides to tell August the real reason she's arrived on her doorstep. There's tragedy and a racially-motivated mob attack, but for the most part Secret Life of Bees brings more tears of joy than sadness.
The bees of the title don't amount to much more than a story gimmick-- the Boatwrights could just as easily have been jelly makers or tomato farmers-- and you get the feeling that some characters, May and Rosaleen in particular, were better fleshed out in the book. But each of the actresses stake out their characters as defined individuals, aided greatly by Prince-Bythewood's unwillingness to take the easy way out and make the whole thing about one white girl's coming-of-age. Okonedo is plainly transformed as the childlike May, and even Hudson, who hadn't really demonstrated acting talent to this point, holds her own. Fanning has grown well into adolescent roles, even if she's still over-reliant on wide-eyed stares, and Keys is fierce and funny as the modern June. Latifah, in a role that leans dangerously close to the stereotypical Mammy, brings unusual warmth and intelligence to August.
In fact, it's unusual warmth and intelligence overall that makes Bees such a pleasure, a cut above the sappiness and schmaltz so many directors think women demand in their movies. Filmed beautifully on location in rural North Carolina, Secret Life of Bees captures a South that contains kindness and beauty even in a time of hate, moving beyond some of the usual preconceptions about the Jim Crow era. As a coming-of-age story, the movie is mostly the usual stuff, but it's a rare opportunity to see a group of fantastic actresses in a story that, for once, doesn't revolve entirely around men.