Late in “The Secret Life of Bees,” young Southern runaway Lily (Dakota Fanning) starts heaving jars of honey in a fit of sadness and anger, smashing them against the door to her room. As the golden goop oozes down the door you might think that she's making a homage to the movie — abundantly sweet and very slow moving. One might also think, as an older lady and her younger companion did during a recent screening when they questioned a panel of the stars and director, that “Bees” was one of the most positive, life-affirming, feel-good movies ever. An honest, acceptable reaction perhaps, but an affirmation of the ends while disregarding the means.
The movie, based on a bestseller by Sue Monk Kidd, follows the travails of Lily as she runs away with her friend Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) from her father T. Ray (Paul Bettany) and the violent racism of their small town. It's the '60s and such things are a part of life, though precocious Lily, who's white, expresses outrage that the Civil Rights Act is not being followed below the Mason-Dixon Line. After a brief “Huckleberry Finn” outing, Lily and Rosaleen wind up with the Boatwrights, a clan of female beekeeping sisters, including the matronly August (Queen Latifah), May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys), who slowly accept Lily and Rosaleen, first as boarders and later as part of the family. The two runaways in turn come to learn a version of black American life that is independent and normal.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood's decision to concentrate on the Boatwright portion of the novel, glossing over Lily's difficult childhood, prompted some audience members at the screening (all of whom seemed to love the movie) to note how much sunnier the view is in the movie. What's missing is not just more details of racism and an abusive dad, but the scorn Lily receives from the rest of society just for being motherless and poor. The narrative refocus becomes difficult to fathom as the Boatwright scenes progress, with entire segments of upbeat but emotionally thin frolicking and contemplation, often set to what seem like gratuitous instances of squeezing in contemporary pop music — by Keys and other artists — that sounds jarringly out of tune with the times. Conflicts arise in the Boatwright home, but they are always unbelievably obvious and easily resolved. There is certainly room in movies for big, sentimental emotional payoffs, but that's all “Bees” buzzes for. (PG-13) 110 min.S