'The Secret Life of Bees' almost sickeningly sweet, but still touching

Al Alexander

Having never read Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” I walked into the movie version of her best-selling novel half expecting a stinging exposé on closeted insects dropping pollen in places Sarah Palin and the Jonas Brothers would never approve.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the only touching going on was the warm feelings it invoked in chronicling how a WASP upsets a hive of busy bees mothered over by a Queen.

Don’t get me wrong, “Bees” is foremost a gooey, almost sickeningly sweet coming-of-age flick. But even cynical Neanderthals like yours truly will have to admit that its mix of “Fried Green Tomatoes” sisterhood and “Eyes on the Prize” sociality are assuredly buzz worthy.

Sure, I cringed in places (make that many places), but I also marveled at performances by Dakota Fanning, Sophie Okonedo and particularly Queen Latifah in bringing the treacle so compellingly to life.

All three affectingly command your attention from the moment Fanning’s 14-year-old runaway, Lily, arrives on the doorstep of the Pepto-Bismol pink homestead of a trio of black sisters who make all their money in honey.

The time is 1964, the year President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and the setting is sweltering South Carolina, where most whites still don’t cotton to blacks, as Lily and her nanny, Rosaleen (an underused Jennifer Hudson), quickly learn when the latter is brutally beaten by a band of rednecks while attempting to register to vote.

That assault, along with the regular abuses and indignities Lily suffers at the hands of her bitter, alcoholic father (a terrific Paul Bettany trading in his Brit accent for a convincing drawl), provide more than enough impetus for them to hit the road. Their destination: Tiberon, S.C., the home of the disparate Boatwright sisters, all annoyingly named after months of the year.

There’s May (Okonedo), fragile and childlike; June (pop singer Alicia Keys), bold, stubborn and militant; and August (Latifah), strong, compassionate and deeply spiritual. The one thing they share is a desire for a warmer, more loving world.

What better way to achieve that than making huge successes of themselves by collecting, manufacturing and distributing the sweetest, tastiest honey south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The black Madonna and child on the label isn’t just a catchy trademark, it’s a summation of who these angelic women are, as Lily and Rosaleen learn after August offers them a place to stay and work.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”), who also adapted the screenplay, does an excellent job of fleshing out and creating empathy for each character, but she’s saved more than once or thrice by a superb cast, which also includes Nate Parker as June’s frustrated suitor, and Tristan Wilds as the recipient of Lily’s first interracial kiss.

You also can’t help but be moved by the nondenominational spirituality that permeates a parable that espouses the power of divine intervention.

You just wish it also stepped in to stop Prince-Bythewood from making “Bees” yet another Hollywood picture in which women of color come to the defenses of a selfish white kid. Wouldn’t it have been so much more meaningful – and realistic – if Lily were a child of color?

It’s also a bit much to believe that the Boatwright sisters are as warmly accepted in their predominately white town as “Bees” leads you to believe. In fact, race often seems like an afterthought, but that does little to diminish the power of its affirming message that love is sweeter than honey.

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (PG-13) Cast includes Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson. Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.