Starring: Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson
Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”)
Written by: Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”)

Dakota Fanning’s no longer the cutie-patootie we all remember from movies like “I Am Sam” and “Uptown Girls.” She’s all grown up with a bright future still ahead of her. Luckily, it seems the beginning of her journey through adolescence will not follow the same path as Haley Joel Osment in “Secondhand Lions.” After “The Secret Life of Bees” Fanning is sure to find more acting work.

In “Bees,” Fanning plays Lily Owens, a young girl living in South Carolina in 1964 who runs away from home to find the truth about her deceased mother. Traveling with her nanny Rosaleen (Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson), who she helps escape from police after they arrest her for a run-in with some short-tempered racists, Lily is determined to know more about her mother’s life before Lily, at the age of four, accidentally shoots and kills her.

It’s a heavy burden to live with knowing you are responsible for your own mother’s death, but deep down Lily believes there is more to the story. It’s a story, unfortunately, her emotionally abusive and neglectful father (Paul Bettany) refuses to tell her. Without any real memories of her mother, all Lily has left is a pair of her white gloves and a photo with the word “Tiburon” printed on the back. Tiburon turns out to be a small town in South Carolina, so, on a whim, Lily and Rosaleen hitch a ride to see what a change in locale has in store for them.

In Tiburon, they find the home of the Boatwright sisters: June (Alicia Keys), May (Academy Award nominee Sophie Okonedo), and August (Academy Award nominee Queen Latifah), who are well known in the South for the amazing honey they produce as beekeepers. Here, Lily and Rosaleen make a temporary home by telling little white lies so the Boatwrights will allow them to stay in their guest house.

Once safe inside their new home (or metaphorical beehive) director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”) is able to effectively capture the emotional struggles the women are experiencing in their personal lives and during an era where hatred is consistent. We especially see that in Okonedo’s May, whose hypersensitivity always gets the best of her. This character reminded me a lot of Wes Bentley’s persona in “American Beauty” because of how they both wear their hearts on their sleeves. While Bentley’s Ricky Fitts becomes choked up with all the beauty there is in the world, May reacts the same way to all of life’s drawbacks.

Yes, the film does pull at the heartstrings, but not in a contriving or melodramatic way. Instead, the ensemble cast of “Bees” depicts some powerful characteristics and does so without overstating their motives. It’s a breath of fresh air when we see real African American characters that mean something more than the cliché, thoughtless material Tyler Perry usually flings at us twice a year.

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