By JAKE COYLE
AP Entertainment Writer
Published: November 28, 2008″The Secret Life Of Bees” teases with talent. How can a movie populate a house with Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson and NOT give us a song?
Though the cast might suggest a musical, “The Secret Life of Bees” is an earnest, saccharine adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling 2002 novel, brought to the big screen by director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”). The novel, set in South Carolina in 1964, came out of nowhere to sell millions in paperback, so this adaptation arrives with much anticipation from its readers. Of course, placating such ardent fans has doomed more than a few movies of beloved books.
The film stays close to the novel in telling the story of Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), a 14-year-old girl who runs away from an abusive father who makes her kneel painfully on grits for the slightest mischief. Lily flees with her caretaker Rosaleen Daise (Hudson), who has reason to flee after she’s beaten by a man in a racist confrontation and arrested.
Lily ultimately is looking to find out more about her mother, who died when Lily was a toddler during a fight with her husband — apparently because of a gun Lily accidentally discharges.
“She was all I wanted and I took her away,” Lily narrates. “Nothing else much mattered.”
But whatever Lily’s inner anguish, she doesn’t much show it. Fanning plays her with a modern teenager’s swagger and self-involvement, making it hard to empathize with her plight.
Rosaleen follows young Lily like she’s the elder, and the two end up serendipitously at the “Caribbean pink”-painted house of the Boatwright sisters, each named after a month: August (Latifah), June (Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo).
The 1964 milieu of the film is one where violence lurks everywhere, even though President Johnson has just signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Tristan Wilds — who some will recognize from his powerful performance on HBO’s “The Wire” — plays Zach Taylor, a black teenager whose optimism is shaken when he’s abducted for sitting with Lily at the local cinema (to see “Surf Party”).
But the Boatwright household is an oasis, presided over by Latifah’s motherly August, the queen bee of the hive. She is all smiles and love and rainbows, and she teaches Lily how to farm honey from their bee colonies.
“Above all, send the bees love,” she tells Lily. “Every living thing wants to be loved.”
Okonedo’s May is a distraught wreck who goes to tears at the slightest mention of harm. Both she and Latifah aren’t served well by their one-dimensional characters. Keys, however, is by far the most riveting thing in the film. All distrust and uptight anger, she plays June with a tension the movie can’t find anywhere else — in the plot, in Lily, even in the early ’60s racial turmoil.
This is only Keys’ third film and, for the part, she’s traded in her piano for a cello. But she nevertheless looks right at home. Keys dominates the screen enough to wonder if she might have a second career — hopefully one with better movies than “Bees” or her first film, “Smokin’ Aces.”
The Boatwright sisters and Rosaleen are a kind of rehab of loving care for Lily; this is ultimately her story. Her mother’s past eventually becomes illuminated and Lily begins to find her identity thanks to the sisters — “the moons shining over me.”
In the book, the bees have a metaphorical significance throughout, but here, they’re really just some bees in the backyard. Instead, all we have is sugary sweet ideas about life.
A Fox Searchlight release, “The Secret Life of Bees” is rated PG-13 for thematic material and some violence. Running time: 110 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.