It's been two years since we last saw Dakota Fanning on the big screen here, in a film which was a adaptation of the literary classic Charlotte's Web. And what a career it had been for this child actress, now an adolescent, to have grown from scream queen (no thanks to her stint under Spielberg's War of the Worlds) to one controversial role in Hounddogs, which I doubt would make it to our shores here.
Based on a novel by Sue Monk Kidd and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Secret Life of Bees is one powerful drama above love and the looking for love, as well as running along the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. It's easy to dismiss this as a chick flick because of its predominantly female cast, but that would be a mistake to make in making it an excuse to miss this film altogether. For all its worth, it's chock full of extremely well delivered performances from veterans such as Fanning herself, together with Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson (proving that she's no flash in the pan), Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany and even Alicia Keys!
Set in the time of Summer in 1964 Southern USA where the Civil Rights Act was just signed and in effect, the sentiments amongst the racist bigots still run high in a charged environment still hanging onto their old segregated ways. Fanning's Lily Owens carries the weight of her guilt buried deep in her subconscious from a tragic event that happened when she was four, and ten years later, after receiving the last straw of punishment from her abusive dad (Bettany), runs away with her caretaker Rosaleen (Hudson).
As if led by an invisible hand, they soon find themselves under the extreme goodwill of the Boatwright sisters, who earn a living through the cultivation of bees for honey, and a series of incidents that bring about some tying of loose ends, and the discovery that these strangers do tie back to Lily's own quest to finding out the truth about her mom, to debunk the lies as told by her father. And of course this allows opportunity for some serious girl power bonding between the characters as they find that they have a lot more in common, as well as the sharing and spreading of love through their ranks. And for those interested, there's also some National Geographic moments to tie in with its title.
The trump card that this movie has, is the excellent performances by the ensemble cast. Fanning leads the pack and gives a wonderful moving performance as the gangling Lily, who thinks that she's quite a jinx with plenty of bad karma to go around, bringing about unfortunate happenings to her hosts which provide the dramatic twists and turns to what would otherwise be a flat movie. Jennifer Hudson had much to do in the first act, though her character got quite muted by the time the trio of the Boatwright sisters August (Latifah), June (Keys) and Okonedo (May) come along. Queen Latifah brings about some serious gravitas in her role as the eldest with the largest heart, and you cannot deny her chemistry with Fanning. Keys on the other hand plays the sister the exact opposite of August, being aloof and starting off with intense suspicion as to the intent of their guests. And Okonedo's role could probably be the most unorthodox of the lot, a fragile soul who has her own wailing wall to deal with the harsh realities of life.
The Secret Life of Bees is well worth the admission ticket, and you'll be hard pressed not to be touched by the film, or moved by the themes it explores, especially when the third act comes by leading to quite a number of powerful revelations and a solid conclusion. Set against its intended backdrop, it's a reminder of tolerance, which the world lacks these days, and of course it's not always hammering in such heavy themes as it has its fair share of romance as well, and for what it's worth, Fanning has her first on-screen romance in this movie, and if I'm right, has her first on-screen kiss as well.
You might be surprised when I say this, but this film has won me over enough for it to be considered as a contender when I shortlist my list of ten top films of the year. Definitely recommended!