It would be easy to be cynical about "The Secret Life of Bees." And with all the honey in the film, it's tempting to craft any criticism around words like "sappy" and "sugary."
To be sure, "Bees" is aiming for the heart, and with fine performances by Paul Bettany, Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning, the film avoids being all saccharine and no substance.
Based on a 2002 book by Sue Monk Kidd, the film -- made in North Carolina -- tells the story of Lily Owens (Fanning), a South Carolina girl who feels unlovable and longs for her dead mother while living with her mean, dead-inside father.
It's 1964 and the Civil Rights Act has just passed, so there's racial strife in her town. One person inspired by the act's passage is Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), Lily's caretaker.
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After Rosaleen, on the way with Lily to register to vote, insults three racists, the two leave town, led by Lily, who, following a clue to her mother's past, heads for the town of Tiburon.
They end up in the home of the sisters Boatwright: May (Sophie Okonedo), June (Alicia Keys) and August (Latifah). They are black women unlike any Rosaleen and Lily have ever seen: cultured, land-owning, confident. They seem to inhabit their own space in the town, even selling honey with a black Madonna on the label to white store owners.
Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director and screenwriter of "Love & Basketball," shows she likes love stories and exploring the lives of women. She creates lovely moments and uses just the right music to carry the plot along. And she does well with her cast. Latifah shows her usual warmth and likability; I think the woman could play an ax murderer and win you over.
Hudson nicely tones down her modern attitude into a defiance that sometimes veers into the area of too reckless for the times. As fragile May, Okonedo does the best Southern accent and is the most developed character among the sisters. Keys is mostly just pretty.
In the end, this is Lily's story, and Fanning, all lanky-limbed, projects the awkwardness, confusion and longing of a young girl well. And Bettany tells his backstory before it's revealed, matching Lily's pain borne of loss with scary and heartbreaking anger over what he's lost.
But the actors can't cover up that, in the end, "Bees" tells a nice story that doesn't add up to much. Several themes -- sisterhood, forgiveness, redemption, love - are approached, but not much is developed.
It's feel-good but not feel deep.