By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Spoonfuls of honey make the medicine go down in The Secret Life of Bees, a sentimental drama of civil rights and sisterhood.
Gina Prince-Bythewood's adaptation of the bestselling novel is built for awards buzz, with a stellar ensemble cast, grand 1960s Deep South design and inarguably uplifting themes. It's old-fashioned in a Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes sort of way, making the movie an easy target for cynics.
Don't listen to them unless they're griping about anachronistic songs intruding, the price paid for casting pop singer Alicia Keys in a central role. Reaching for the youth market through a soundtrack is understandable, though, as movies this genteel are easily overlooked or underestimated.
Leisurely paced and emotionally hefty, The Secret Life of Bees circles around 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), living with an abusive father (Paul Bettany) and a decade of guilt after her mother's accidental death. Lily runs away with her housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), searching for her mother's past with a Madonna wood painting leading to a Tiburon, S.C., honey farm.
Rosaleen had another reason for leaving town. Buoyed by President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, Rosaleen wants to register to vote. A violent confrontation with bigots lands her injured in jail. Lily springs Rosaleen, lending The Secret Life of Bees a Huck-and-Jim aura as they face adversity on the road.
The destination is worth it. The Black Madonna Honey Farm is managed by the Boatwright sisters: maternal August (Queen Latifah), budding Black Power activist June (Keys) and woman-child May (Sophie Okonedo), a brittle spirit prone to crying jags carried out at a wailing wall stuffed with handwritten prayers.
Lily sees the Boatwrights as the family she always wanted. Rosaleen sees proud, successful African-American women she'd like to be.
Prince-Bythewood skims through an abundance of subplots from Sue Monk Kidd's book: Lily's tentative romance with the Boatwrights' nephew (Tristan Wilds), snooty June belittling the guests and her boyfriend (Nate Parker), and everyone keeping May on even keel despite constant crises. Sometimes viewers may feel those cynics have a point.
Personally, I bought into almost everything the movie offers, starting with Fanning's immediate evolution into more than a child phenomenon. Her face has grown into her talent, with more subtle eye-emoting and fewer precocious expressions. She played a similar Southern waif in the yet-unreleased Hounddog two years ago, but there's no comparison to her control of this performance, one of the year's best so far.
Latifah's performance keeps everything smoothly orbiting with hugs and homilies, August serving as spiritual griot to primly dressed black women. Curious Lily is a heart-grabber, and any beekeeping lesson for her has a moral underneath.
Keys is a formidable presence on screen again, and although Okonedo is saddled with the film's most contrived character, she soft-peddles the pathos as much as possible.
The Secret Life of Bees may turn off as many viewers as it spellbinds with its devotion to Kidd's Southern Gothic prose. After so many movies taking black history, women and children for granted, it's a treat to see one handle all three groups gracefully.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.