“I killed my mother when I was four years old, and that was all I knew about myself,” Lily Owens tells us at the beginning of “The Secret Life of Bees.”
Of course, the 13-going-on-14-year-old knows a bit more than that. She knows the accidental death of her mother has left a hole in her heart that hasn’t yet been filled. She knows that her gruff, tough father isn’t likely to do so. She knows she likes to make up stories but would rather know the truth about her own.
She’ll get both wishes fulfilled by the end of this sometimes maudlin but mostly charming coming-of-age tale, which is based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd.
The events take place in South Carolina in the charged summer of 1964. Lily (Dakota Fanning) is looking for an escape from life on a peach farm with her slightly cruel father T. Ray (Paul Bettany). (He doesn’t hit the girl, but he does make her kneel on a pile of grits for an hour when she displeases him.)
Lily soon realizes she’s not the only one with a reason to leave. When her black nanny Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) is beaten by some unrepentant racists on her way to register to vote, the pair high-tail it out of town.
They head to Tiburon, S.C. Some mementos Lily’s mother left behind lead the girl to think she had some connection to the town, particularly the beekeeping Boatright sisters.
Under false pretenses, the pair get a place to stay in exchange for helping the sisters run the business. Neither Lily nor Rosaleen, they note, have ever met black women as cultured or independent as the Boatrights. Lily wants to learn about her mother’s past, but instead August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo) give the girl her own future.
The mawkish possibilities inherent in the story are mostly averted, thanks to the high quality of acting. Dakota Fanning (“War of the Worlds”) has a career ahead of her that should extend long past the expiration date of most other child actors.
Miss Latifah does wise and mothering very well, while Miss Okonedo quite breathtakingly transforms herself to play the troubled young May. Miss Keys has never looked more beautiful, and she brings to her budding activist a real fire. Miss Hudson, who was the one lackluster thing about the “Sex and the City” movie, redeems herself here.
The British Mr. Bettany is completely convincing as a Southerner, and there’s another movie entirely in the painful depths of his darting eyes. That’s one of the frustrating things about this one - the rather self-centered Lily gives barely a thought to how her father must feel about her mother’s death. But then, she doesn’t seem a very mature 14.
It’s one of the reasons it seems slightly creepy when she falls for a local, who is played by Tristan Wilds, an actor five years older than she is. Some of the ages have clearly been changed from the book, though — there’s no way Miss Latifah is old enough to have experienced what we find out she has.
The warm tone never wavers, though. A beehive might have room for only one queen, but “The Secret Life of Bees” is, despite the stage name of one of its stars, filled with them.
TITLE: “The Secret Life of Bees”
RATING: PG-13 (thematic material and some violence)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
WEB SITE: foxsearchlight.com /thesecretlifeofbees
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS