A waif-ish and often disheveled Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds) plays the emotionally fragile and love-starved Lily Owens. At four years old Lily was responsible for her mother's death, "And that's all I know about myself," fourteen-year old Lily narrates in the opening scene. Accompanied by housekeeper Rosaleen (played by Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson of Dreamgirls), Lily runs away from her harsh and emotionally abusive father (Paul Bettany, sans British accent). The two travel to Tiburon, South Carolina where they are taken in by the beekeeping Boatwright sisters.
It is August Boatwright (Oscar winner Queen Laitfah, Chicago), the ubiquitous and wise head of the family that decides to take in Lily and Rosaleen against the wishes of her sister June (Alicia Keys, Smokin Aces).
Lily learns from August the art of beekeeping and the complex society and secrets that go on inside the hive. She meets Zachary Taylor, August's godson and fellow beekeeper. Suddenly, the girl who has lived a life absent of love is confronted with love in all of its forms. But the outside intrudes on Lily's new life, in the form of baseball bat carrying, N-word spewing, angry white men, and also by the secrets and past of Lily's mysterious mother.
Queen Latifah does a remarkable job of finding the balance between enduring strength and warmth necessary to play the impressive August, while Dakota Fanning portrays the blossoming Lily with her characteristic poise and depth. The most endearing moments of the film are those in which Lily displays childlike behavior in her new surroundings. But the truly notable performance of the film is the portrayal of dibilitatingly empathetic May Boatwright, played by Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda). Her fluctuation between joy and overwhelming sadness make for the film's most poignant moments. On the flip side, Keys, while remarkably beautiful on screen, makes June both one-dimensional and unlikable, and Hudson's Rosaleen is as memorable as the wallpaper.
Those who read and loved the novel will not be disappointed with the portrayal of key details-the Pepto-Bismol-colored house, May's backyard wailing wall and, most of all, the wooden statue of the black Virgin Mary-that make the Boatwright sisters so fascinating. They are eccentric, but they are defined by their eccentricity.
Character interactions and relationship development propel this movie, while specific events are secondary. Scene transitions often feel awkward, and major plot points are resolved with anticlimactic simplicity, but overall the heart of the movie and the depth that most of the cast bring to his/her characters make this movie worthy of the book. The symbolism of the Virgin and the religious connotations associated with her are glossed over in the film, portrayed ambiguously as the universal search for love and acceptance, found in the unconditional love of mothers. So women, take your mothers, daughters, sisters, friends-but don't forget to read the book.