The beloved best-seller by Sue Monk Kidd has been brought to screen with great care, deep sincerity, and a perfect cast. Unfortunately, it is so careful, so lovingly burnished, so deliberate that it becomes sluggish, never finding the distinctive voice of the book’s narrator. Dakota Fanning, coltishly adolescent, plays Lily, who runs away from her abusive father T-Ray (Paul Bettany), after their housekeeper Rosaleen (Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson) is beaten and arrested for trying to register to vote following the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act.
They are taken in by three sisters named after months: August (Queen Latifah), May (Sophie Okonedo), and June (Alicia Keys). They live in a bright pink house and keep bees for their Black Madonna honey. August is strong, patient, and wise. June is impatient and angry. May is sweet and so easily brought to tears that she has a special wall for crying, like the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. She writes down what worries her or makes her sad and folds the paper up to slip it between the rocks in the wall.
The three sisters have managed to create a quiet life of dignity, independence, and culture in part because they keep to themselves. They know that taking in a white child who has run away could give the bigots in their community an opportunity to make their lives difficult, but like Rosaleen, they believe that giving in to racism in order to get along is “just a different way of dying.” And Lily and a new friend explore some personal and societal boundaries that involve some serious risks.
Lovingly made, the film is beautifully performed, especially by Queen Latifah and singer Keys. It gently but honestly addresses the difficulty of relationships made more complex by mingling the ultimate equality achieved through selfless love and the ultimate inequality of pervasive bigotry. But it is too neatly constructed. The hair of the three sisters telegraphs their roles on the continuum of feeling and of where they are in time, May with her little-girl braids rooted to the past and June with her Afro and NAACP t-shirt reaching for the future. August is the bridge between them. T-Ray will come back for Lily, who will find that there is a reason she feels so much at home with the sisters. Everything falls into place, but it all takes just a little bit too long — do we really need three separate transitional montages? A little less respect would have opened it up for the livelier sensibility of the novel. It would have been less pretty, perhaps, but more fully engaging.