LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If Barack Obama is elected U.S. President, he might just have Dakota Fanning to thank.
More precisely, he can thank people like fictional character Lily Owens, whom Fanning portrays in the new civil rights era movie "The Secret Life of Bees," because without trailblazers like Lily, Obama may not be in the position he is.
"The Secret Life of Bees," which opens on Friday, marks a departure for 14-year-old Fanning. Until now, she has been seen mostly as the adorable little girl in films such as "The Cat in the Hat," "War of the Worlds" and "Charlotte's Web."
Her one push into teenage parts, low-budget "Hounddog" in which she played a victim of child rape, opened in September to little fanfare and almost no box office. But "Bees," in which she gets her first on-screen kiss, is a different sort of film.
It is backed by Fox Searchlight, the studio that has lured audiences to hit comedies "Juno," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Sideways." Moreover, "Bees" features an A-list cast including Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and singer Alicia Keys.
Yet "Bees" is more than just a film with a hit-making studio behind it and a strong cast. Based on a best-selling novel, it is set in 1964 when the U.S. Congress was debating landmark civil rights legislation. In taking audiences back to that time period, it tells a new generation -- Fanning's -- that people of different races have more in common, than not.
"It was great to explore that in a film and show the intensity of the civil rights era," Fanning told Reuters. "A lot of people my age and younger didn't even know what went on then, so I'm glad this (movie) can change that."
No movie can change culture by itself, of course, but a prominent film can help shape opinion. Most recently, the "green" movement had "An Inconvenient Truth."
"I think ("Bees") does remind us of what we've been through, and how far we do have to go," Latifah told Reuters.
"I also think it reminds us of just how humanity will see through all of that (racism). Honesty and truth will see through it all, and bring us to a better place," she said.
Fanning portrays teenager Lily, living in segregated South Carolina and being raised by her abusive father on a peach farm. Her mother died tragically when she was young.
When Lily accompanies her black housekeeper Rosaleen (Hudson) on a trip into town, several white men confront them and Rosaleen is beaten. The two, white girl and black nanny, run away and eventually find safety in the home of the Boatwright sisters (Latifah, Keys and Sophie Okonedo).
The three Boatwright sisters are different, but they share a strong sense of self and a fierce independence. They own their home and make a living tending bees and selling honey.
As much as the movie deals with race relations, it also explores themes of family, loss and love. Lily develops a teenage crush and has her first kiss with a black teenager.
"It speaks about all kinds of situations that you don't really expect, about finding yourself, about where you belong, about letting go of your past, and just trying to find your happiness," said Keys.
Fanning said she read the book years ago and was fascinated by its tale of a young girl growing into womanhood. She also said she gets to portray a range of emotions that in past roles eluded her as she moved from girlhood into her teenage years.
"She'll have one of those Meryl Streep careers -- an endless career of good roles because she is really good," predicted Latifah. "She is so calm, cool and collected. She is comfortable in her skin."
Editing by Jill Serjeant