On the heels of Lakeview Terrace and The Express comes The Secret Life of Bees, a screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller about race relations in the civil-rights-era South, by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball).

Whether or not race is an issue in the current presidential campaign, it's definitely factoring into the season's film releases.

On the heels of Lakeview Terrace and The Express comes The Secret Life of Bees, a screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller about race relations in the civil-rights-era South, by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball).

Dakota Fanning is Lily, a 14-year-old living with a distant father (Paul Bettany) and the guilt of accidentally killing her mother at age four. After her only friend, hired help Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), tries to register to vote and gets a beating instead, Lily joins her flight from town with a destination in mind - a small town with which Lily's mother had some connection.

"The Secret Life of Bees"

Opens Friday

Grade: B-

There they meet the Boatwright sisters: nurturing elder August (Queen Latifah), who runs her own honey operation, headstrong June (Alicia Keys), and troubled, powerfully sensitive May (Sophie Okonedo). Despite June's reservations, the sisters take Lily and Rosaleen in, and Lily sets about investigating why this strange place feels so much like home.

Although it's a powerhouse cast, the leading ladies develop a nice, organic balance between them. On the occasions when the film gets too cloying, simple or overly manipulative, you wish that more of what they conjured had rubbed off behind the camera.

But the times Prince-Bythewood panders are mostly outweighed by the presence of unique, enjoyable characters, and five times the good roles most movies have for working actresses, regardless of race.