Honey is sweet and so is Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, a fable of black and female liberation in the sixties south so drenched in sugar that watching it may make your teeth hurt.
Dakota Fanning stars as Lily Owens, a fourteen-year old girl in 1964 South Carolina, who’s haunted by the fact that she accidentally shot and killed her mother Deborah (Hilarie Burton) ten years before, when the young woman was tussling with her husband. Now her widowed father (Paul Bettany) treats his daughter brutally, and the girl is protected only by their black housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). When the latter is assaulted by racist thugs when trying to register to vote, Lily springs her from custody and the two escape together, winding up at the bright-pink home of the Boatwright sisters—August (Queen Latifah), the matriarch of a thriving honey business; June (Alicia Keyes), a stern music teacher and marriage-phobic activist; and sweet, simple May (Sophie Okonedo), who’s still grieving over the death of their brother years before and feels deeply every hint of cruelty.
The endlessly noble August takes Lily and Rosaleen in, making the latter part of the family while mentoring the girl in the ways of beekeeping. Lily also develops a cross-racial friendship with August’s charming godson Zach (Tristan Wilds), with unfortunate results when they try to attend a movie together, while watching June resist the proposal of her teaching colleague Neil (Nate Parker). Even more importantly, however, Lily finds out about a relationship that existed between her mother and August—something that gives her new strength when her father shows up to reclaim her and enables her not only to confront doubts that her mom really loved her but also to understand her father’s hostility.
The intention behind all this is clear—to celebrate women overcoming the emotional pain of loss and the ways in which they bond together to help one another over difficult times, and to portray the struggle for civil rights in the unreconstructed south as an analogue to it. (It’s significant that there are violence and death in each case, and that August stands as a heroine in both.) But these serious matters are treated in a cloying, feel-good fashion that reduces them to pabulum. The candy-colored look of the piece (production design by Warren Alan Young, art direction by William G. Davis and Alan Hook, set design by Alex McCarroll and set decoration by James Edward Ferrell, Jr., and costumes by Sandra Hernandez) add to the fantasy feel, and Rogier Stoffer’s gauzy cinematography accentuates the effect, as does Mark Isham’s saccharine score.
Nor does Latifah’s near-comatose performance help. August’s supposed to be a font of wisdom and tower of strength, of course, but that doesn’t mean she need be portrayed as a plastic saint. All of the other characters are pretty much one-dimensional too, although Keyes and Bettany manage to add some more subtle touches to the surface. As for Fanning, she’s so subdued and reticent that her natural spontaneity nearly disappears. “Hounddog” might not have been a successful experiment for her, but it brought out a good deal more of her vivacity than this picture does.
There’s a point, in movies as in everything else, where niceness becomes oppressive. It does so in “The Secret Life of Bees.” The Hallmark Hall of Fame would have been a far more appropriate venue for this sugar-bomb.