By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald
The kind of movie so heartfelt and earnest it makes you feel like a grouch for not surrendering to it, The Secret Life of Bees emotes mightily but says precious little. There’s something too perfect and precious about writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s bestseller, about a 14-year-old girl named Lily (Dakota Fanning) who flees her abusive father (Paul Bettany) in 1964 South Carolina.
Lily and another girl, her former caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), take refuge in the home of the Boatwright sisters, who harvest bees on their farm and run a successful honey business. August (Queen Latifah), the eldest, immediately takes a motherly interest in the runaways. June (Alicia Keys), the middle sister, treats them resentfully. May (Sophie Okonedo), the youngest, is happy for the added company.
Life lessons quickly come to all involved, some having to do with the just-signed Civil Rights Act, which has only managed to agitate rednecks to more vicious acts of racism. Lily befriends a black teen (The Wire’s Lincoln Taylor) and their budding, wholly innocent romance proves problematic for the locals. Rosaleen blossoms into a young woman. The contrarian June makes life difficult for her boyfriend (Nate Parker). May’s eccentric, overly sensitive personality is the source of tragedy.
And August pours the wisdom and Hallmark-card insights over everybody. The Secret Life of Bees is beautifully shot by Rogier Stoffers (who also shot the Genghis Khan epic Mongol), and the performances are all fine. Especially good is Keys, who continues to prove herself a surprisingly strong actress, and who the camera cannot get enough of. But this is woefully familiar material, and Prince-Bythewood overdirects the film, draining it of the messiness of real life in favor of a syrupy sweetness that threatens to drown you. Appropriately enough, the movie leaves you feeling like you’ve been chugging honey.
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Lincoln Taylor, Nate Parker, Paul Bettany.
Writer-director: Gina Prince-Bythewood. Based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd.
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, James Lassiter, Will Smith.
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.