Gentle lessons about growing up are a-swarm in ‘Bees'

The fictional town of Tiburon, S.C., created for Sue Monk Kidd's novel “The Secret Life of Bees,” is so beloved that the state's online locator site lists it alongside Tega Cay and Traveler's Rest (www.sciway.net/city).

Fans of the book will be glad to hear they may also fall in love with the movie version. It's sometimes a little too sweet and sticky, like the honey made by its heroines, but it warms the heart in the hands of such sensitive storytellers.

Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood has worked in television since her underrated film “Love and Basketball” eight years ago, yet she paces this longer project perfectly. A few individual incidents are hard to swallow, but the narrative buzzes smoothly along at all times.

Though Queen Latifah gets top billing, Dakota Fanning is the star and sometime narrator. She plays Lily Owen, who accidentally killed her mother as a preschooler and has since been living with a cruel, angry father (Paul Bettany). She runs away from home with their housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), after white men beat Rosaleen for wanting to vote in her first election. (This is 1964.)

They head to Tiburon, a name on the back of the only photo of her mom that Lily possesses. The word means “shark” in Spanish; perhaps this is a reference to the inhospitable Old South, which gobbled up defenseless women and African Americans?

There they find sanctuary with the Boatwright sisters, who run a honey business: maternal August (Latifah), sternly proud music teacher June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo), who lacks the defenses most of us have against unhappy emotions. You don't need to be told that Lily's morose daddy will eventually track her down.

If you lived through segregation, you won't believe a black boy and a white girl, both teens, would expect to sit together in the balcony of a theater without causing trouble. (How would she even get up there? Whites had a separate entrance, and there were rarely stairs between floors.) Nor would Lily be able to lodge with unrelated black women for months in a small town without arousing comment – or a social worker.

Yet the emotional content matters more than these details. Prince-Bythewood gives all the characters, even Lily's hopelessly embittered father, at least one chance to explain themselves and gain empathy. Lesser filmmakers might feel the need to set up a romance between Lily and Zach (Tristan Wilds), a young black man who hopes to become a lawyer; Prince-Bythewood stops at a chastely tender kiss.

Though Hudson, Keys and Latifah are known as singers, they take only a few a cappella verses, because they've been cast for their strong personalities. Fanning gives yet another honest, deeply felt performance; at 14, her acting future stretches out before her like the Pacific Ocean before the conquering Cortez.