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Yes, the critic in me says, some of the plot twists emerge from the House of Astonishing Coincidences. And every character is designed either to point Lily in the right direction (the women) or to dramatize the rural bigotry she's trying to escape (the white men). I wish T. Ray, well played by Bettany, had been given some spark of ambiguity, some inner life beyond his meanness; and that June her arms folded in disapproval, like a stern nun concealing a ruler in her sleeves didn't have to endure the standard redemption process of being enlightened, converted, broken. But this is a parable, and the people in it are meant to signify. The more rigid the limitations, the more room most of the actors have to tunnel through convention into epiphany.
There are times, and this is one of them, when I think Queen Latifah has the most beautiful face in movies. I'm not sure what's in that smile, but it rarely seems less than radiant, and never more so than here. Hudson, who won an Oscar for Dreamgirls, is stalwart, defiant and winning as Lily's nanny and de facto stepmom. Okonedo, an Oscar nominee for Hotel Rwanda, has a poignant smile that breaks through May's tears like the sun during a storm; of all the strong performances in Bees, hers is the one most likely to attract Academy attention.
But the soul of the movie is Fanning, who, like Lily, has turned 14 after an unusual childhood. She was half her present age when she emerged as a self-possessed little scene-stealer in Sean Penn's I Am Sam, and continued to impress in Sweet Home Alabama, Man on Fire and the Spielberg War of the Worlds. Other kid actors might be imps and scamps, but Fanning located the gravity and peril in childhood. Now she is negotiating early adolescence with the same poise. She recently survived the indie movie Hounddog, a heaping plate of refried Southern Gothic (known at Sundance as "the Dakota Fanning rape movie") in which she plays another backwoods unfortunate who says in the first scene, "I'm gonna kill my daddy one day." Bees is, by comparison, a pleasant stroll in the Carolina woods.
Like Latifah, Fanning has the eerie ability to lure the moviegoer's eye over to the part of the screen where she is, seemingly doing nothing. (There are few film pleasures as rewarding as watching Fanning listen.) There's also her gift of living inside the character without editorializing about it. She knows how close the camera is, how closely viewers are monitoring her moods, so she never pushes an emotion; she's like a doctor with a sixth sense for detecting internal ailments. With no signs of exertion, Fanning wills Lily from fictional stereotype into persuasive movie existence. The Secret Life of Bees may not be a To Kill a Mockingbird on page or screen, but Fanning is the center of its soul and intelligence. It's Hollywood's job to find strong parts for this precocious genius as she matures into womanhood.