Like a mouthful of honey, “The Secret Life of Bees” is cloyingly sweet and gooey, and you’re not quite sure you can swallow it undiluted. Based on Sue Monk Kidd’s popular 2002 novel about Southern sisterhood during the civil rights movement and toplining Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah, the Fox Searchlight release should attract fans of the bestselling tome and arthouse patrons but will be held back from breakout biz by poor word of mouth.
Helmer Gina Prince-Bythewood, who adapted the book, apparently had one instructive word for her actors (“earnest!”) and one for her d.p. (“signify!”). Opening in 1964 South Carolina, the story follows young Lily (Fanning) from the story’s rather terrific opening line (“I killed my mother when I was 4 years old …”) and a perilous relationship with her abusive father (a very good Paul Bettany), to the motherly embrace of the beekeeping, highly cultured August Boatwright (Latifah) and her sisters, May (Sophie Okonedo), and June (Alicia Keyes).
The Civil Rights Act has been signed, and the South is not reacting well, especially toward women like Lily’s housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), who are sick of racist abuse. When Rosaleen is arrested — after being assaulted by rednecks — she and Lily flee like a distaff Huck and Jim, and end up at Chez Boatwright. “It’s like they got their own spot in the world where the outside don’t come in,” Rosaleen says dreamily. The movie is full of lines like that.
Like “Secret Life’s” score — almost exclusively contempo pop, and all too deliberate — the film has no use for its own time, or even place, and seems intent on giving the actresses all the room they need to be as broad as possible.
The characters, as written, are little more than one-dimensional, which doesn’t make for interesting, nuanced drama. But the performers do the best with the faux-profound platitudes they’re given.
Latifah is all nobility and empowerment, which may be the kind of thing that brings audiences in (it certainly made the book popular). Fanning has grown out of the juvenile roles that made her famous but retains her openness and vulnerability.
Pop star Keyes is a revelation in her third bigscreen role (after “Smokin’ Aces” and “The Nanny Diaries”), and Okonedo, always first-rate, shows enormous sensitivity playing the simple-minded May.
Production values are tops, the shooting by Rogier Stoffers particularly notable.