Gina Prince-Bythewood finally follows up her debut Love and Basketball with The Secret Life of Bees, a disappointing, deep-fried batch of clichéd characters and manipulative tearjerking. Set in South Carolina, during the first days of mandatory integration, this coming-of-age story leaves few Southern clichés unexploited. It follows a 14-year-old girl (Dakota Fanning), as she flees her abusive father and ends up bunking with a group of wholly empowered black women.
Too simple-minded to seem sincere, Bees wastes no energy in making sure the audience can’t help but side with it. From its too-obvious musical montages (which seem designed to sell CDs instead of support the story), to its pre-determined attitudes toward each of its characters, to its trite philosophy lessons delivered via Queen Latifah, the movie is self-aware and aware of its own supposed importance. Fanning seems like a grounding presence through all of this hand-wringing, forced bonding, and pontificating, but in her most dramatic scenes, she tends toward the shrill. Although she is playing a character who is supposedly destined to be a great writer, she gives little evidence of depth, instead only whining incessantly about her mommy and daddy issues. Sure to reap plenty of Image Awards next year (one forward-thinking character even wears an NAACP t-shirt), the film is nothing if not marketable. Ironically, in its pre-digested judgments of its villains, who never reveal much additional texture, it is as biased as any of the bigots it attacks.