There’s a whole lotta healing in The Secret Life of Bees. Big Racial Issues too. And down-home heartwarming platitudes set to acoustic guitar ballads by female singers. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel has tripe and schmaltz and stereotypes as well, all jam-packed into 111 minutes that seem to go on interminably and yet nonetheless somehow don’t afford the filmmaker enough time to competently resolve her thuddingly obvious plotlines. Providing happily-ever-after resolutions for its characters with a swiftness almost as extreme as its corniness, the story begins with soft-focus flashbacks to the fateful day that Lily (Dakota Fanning), as a four-year-old, accidentally killed her mother. Ten years later in 1964, Lily—tired of being forced to kneel on piles of uncooked grits as punishment for misbehavior by her nasty daddy (Paul Bettany, concealing his Britishness under a coat of sweaty grime)—flees her South Carolina home after her housekeeper Miss Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) is nearly beaten to death by racists for trying to execute her new civil rights to register to vote.
Following a clue left on the back of a photo, Lily and Rosaleen set out for the sun-dappled country residence of honey-maker August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), whom Lilly suspects had a connection with her mother. What she discovers, however, is even better: three new maternal figures—heck, they’re not just mommies, but full-on fairy godmothers named after warm months—in August, her grumpy sister June (Alicia Keys), and their “different” sister May (Sophie Okenedo), who’s the type of endearingly kooky simpleton that joyfully rolls her eyes and giggles, cries incessantly, makes funny-shaped pancakes, and is intimately in touch with both her feelings and, seemingly, the vast cosmos. The heavens would be a fine destination for all these characters, since in space, no one would be able to hear saintly mammy August’s endless array of truisms, scared-of-marriage June’s hard-ass grouching, Lily’s “Why didn’t you love me?!” wails about Mom, or—most of all—talk of May’s personal wailing wall, into which she inserts grieving notes about her deceased twin sister April.
Budding interracial romance between Lily and aspiring lawyer Zack (Tristan Wilds) leads first to trouble and then to thoroughly unnecessary, egregiously manipulative tragedy, thereby interrupting the tale’s syrupy spirituality (August and company pray to an African-American ship figurehead with a black-power raised fist) and exposition about its ungodly central metaphor (bee yards = the world!) with some stock plot “tensions.” Amid a gaggle of singers-turned-actresses who don’t really act but rather just broadly, monotonously emote, Fanning—despite strange dark rings around her eyes that suggest she’s jonesing for a smack fix—mostly casts aside her former cutie-pie tics. The clunky earnestness that takes their place, however, is just a minor step forward for the former, unendurably precocious wunderkind, who in the end primarily succeeds only at following Haley Joel Osment’s Secondhand Lions footsteps by headlining her very own mushy, awkward-teen-years coming-of-age saga.