Set in a generically sepia-toned 1964, The Secret Life of Bees uses the Civil Rights Act, the violent racism of the South, and the bravery of African Americans who sought to exercise their right to vote as hastily draped window dressing for the film's main concern: a little white girl with mommy issues.
When Lily (Dakota Fanning) was four years old, her mother, Deborah, ran out on her husband and young daughter, only to return some months later to "get some things." Whether Lily was among the things Deborah planned to get is unknown—upon her return, a violent altercation with her husband turned tragic when a gun was pulled and the young Lily accidentally shot and killed her mother.
Needless to say, Lily grows up with some baggage. Not only did she kill her mom, but she doesn't even know if her mother intended to abandon her or not. Meanwhile, her black housekeeper is horrifically beaten for attempting to vote, but never mind that—when Lily is 14, a mystical swarm of bees arrives in her room one night, prompting her to run away from her emotionally desiccated father and seek further information about her mother! Her flight takes her to the home of the irritatingly named August (Queen Latifah), May (Sophie Okonedo), and June (Alicia Keys), three beekeeping sisters with a mysterious connection to Deborah.
A miscast Queen Latifah, apparently the only Black Woman of a Certain Age Working in Hollywood Right Now, spends the film nodding sagely and teaching Dakota Fanning about bees (they're a metaphor for "I don't give a shit"). Throw in a couple of thin romantic subplots, a prayer circle organized around the worship of a black Virgin Mary statue, and a woman who "feels so much" that she bursts into tears anytime she gets upset, and you've got a sentimental piece of Oscar-bait that's far more manipulative than moving.