The Secret Life of Bees

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Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- Sue Monk Kidd's acclaimed, Civil Rights-era novel, "The Secret Life of Bees," about a troubled South Carolina teen who finds redemption in an unlikely place, has been turned into an affecting ensemble piece that's destined to generate a fair share of awards-season buzz.

Nicely adapted and directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood ("Love & Basketball"), the Toronto International Film Festival premiere really takes flight on the wings of its powerhouse, female-centric cast headed up by Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and, especially, Sophie Okonedo.At least a couple of those performances are certain to resonate particularly strongly ahead of the film's October 17 release, which, along with sturdy word-of-mouth should give Fox Searchlight a head-start in its kudos campaigning.

Young Fanning, who so far seems destined to avoid that awkward teen phase, is as impressive as ever in the role of Lily Owens, a 14-year-old who must cope with tremendous guilt feelings over the death of her mother, as wel as daily castigation at the hands of her cold, abusive father (Paul Bettany).
Ultimately fleeing with her caretaker, the strong-willed Rosaleen (Hudson), the two find sanctuary in a big Pepto-Bismol-pink house belonging to successful bee farmer August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her two sisters--the independent June (Keys) and the delicate, childlike May (Okonedo).

Director-screenwriter Prince-Blythewood maintains, for the most part, a firm grip on the material, careful not to overplay potentially tricky, big dramatic sequences.

But while that admirable restraint occasionally comes across as tentativeness in other parts of the film, she succeeds in coaxing uniformly lovely performances from her honey of a cast.

Fanning aside, Queen Latifah shines as the calming nurturer of the three sisters; while Keys proves to be as commanding (and as a striking) a presence in front of the camera as she is behind a piano.

And while Hudson, though in a less substantial role, continues to make good on her Oscar-winning Dreamgirls promise, it's ultimately Okonedo who movingly steals the show as the Boatwright sister who tragically carries the weight of the world on her fragile shoulders.

Having previously been nominated for an Oscar for her turn opposite Don Cheadle in "Hotel Rwanda," it would be surprising if Okonedo's achingly poignant performance here didn't earn her a return ticket.

Opens: October 17 (Fox Searchlight)
Production company: Overbrook Entertainment/Donners' Company
Cast: Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo
Director-screenwriter: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Executive producer: Jada Pinkett Smith
Producer: Lauren Shuler Donner, James Lassiter, Will Smith, Joe Pichirallo
Director of photography: Rogier Stoffers
Production designer: Warren Alan Young
Music: Mark Isham
Costume designer: Sandra Hernandez
Editor: Terilyn A. Shropshire
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.


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