The honey runs thick in "The Secret Life of Bees," and so does the treacle. The cloying dullness sets in early, although not from the first frame, which begins with a girl's voice-over narration telling us, "I killed my mother when I was 4 years old." This sounds like something Mickey Spillane might have cooked up.
In fact, the movie, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, is derived from a popular 2002 novel by Sue Monk Kidd, which is mostly set in South Carolina shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. This setting allows the movie's talented but underutilized cast to try out their Deep South accents while sashaying, wriggling, cooing, and weeping.
Dakota Fanning is Lily, who accidentally shot her mother and now, years later, is stuck in a physically abusive relationship with her father (Paul Bettany), from whom she flees with the family housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) into the warm embrace of beekeeper August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and August's sisters May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys). (What happened to July?)
The secret haven August provides, far away from Lily's father, is a ramshackle home painted the color of – as one character says – Pepto-Bismol. But all is not well in paradise. Weepy May is emotionally unstable; June, who plays a mean cello and is all too clearly supposed to represent the fiery, new, civil rights generation, is having boyfriend issues. In the midst of it all is August, with her voluminous benevolence. She's such an idealized matriarch that even Queen Latifah's prodigious gift for down-home humor can't quite humanize her.
Among the cast, Hudson is the most neglected. Although she has ample screen time in the early going, and is very fine, she practically disappears from view once the scene shifts to bee country. Since the relationship between Lily and Rosaleen, with its echoes of Carson McCullers and Harper Lee, is the most resonant in the film, it seems grossly negligent to skimp on it in favor of the ensuing melodramatics.
Fanning, thankfully, is growing out of her grating adorableness phase. She is now poised to embark on a journey far more treacherous than Lily's in "The Secret Life of Bees." I am speaking of the move from girlhood to young adulthood, a passage that has capsized the careers of so many child actors. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some violence.)