Making the Grades
Learning the proper etiquette for dealing with thousands of bees while delicately attempting to harvest their honey becomes a metaphor for life in this movie that deals with 1960s civil rights issues, domestic abuse and forgiveness. If it sounds like a heavy watch, it is, but it also comes with ample rewards for the audience's attention.
Fourteen-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) struggles with guilt over the loss of her mother, as well as an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with her embittered father (Paul Bettany). The closest thing to love she has experienced in her young life is the kindness of Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), a colored woman hired to do domestic tasks. So when the housekeeper is beaten while attempting to register for the vote, Lily determines to rescue both of them. Setting off on a journey toward freedom, the runaways head for a small South Carolina town where Lily believes her Mom once lived.
With only a picture of a black Madonna and child as a clue, the pair are led to the pink-painted home of three sisters living on a honey farm. August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) fulfills the role of matriarch for her sisters June (Alicia Keys) and psychologically challenged May (Sophie Okonedo). With a heart as big as her smile, she welcomes the weary strangers, even though she obviously isn't deceived by Lily's tale of woe explaining their arrival. To pay for their room and board, Rosaleen is assigned to help May in the kitchen while Lily begins learning the secrets of beekeeping to help with the family business. Between the chores, the women come together to offer each other social, emotional and spiritual support -- things that will be needed in great supply in the near future.
Like the honey they extract from their hives, these characters try and distill every drop of hope and love they can from the increasingly difficult and sour challenges that come their way. While the much bigger issues of discrimination and civil rights rage all around, the script turns its focus inward and offers intricate interpersonal insights between the characters and radiant examples of acceptance and forgiveness.
The serious topics explored result in content that parents should carefully consider before sharing this movie with their older children and teens. These concerns include a character who commits suicide after succumbing to overwhelming grief, a death from a gunshot (heard but not seen), spouse abuse, depictions of a father using physical force and cruel punishments to control his daughter, and portrayals of whites beating blacks (hitting and punching are shown, and injured characters later sport bruises and bloody abrasions). Thankfully, sexual content is limited to kisses (some passionate, and others exchanged between teens) as well as the mention of an unwed pregnancy and improper moral conduct. There are also some mild and moderate profanities and terms of Deity as expletives.
Solid, award-worthy performances might make this emotionally engaging story a tad too powerful for those who share similar burdens of physical abuse or unnecessary guilt from the past. But while this film doesn't patronize its audience with a nicely wrapped up happy ending, it definitely promotes positive examples of taking control of your life instead of being a victim and celebrating the amazing feat of simple endurance, leaving the viewer feeling just a little sweeter for the experience.