Watching Scott McGehee and David Siegel's Bee Season entails watching yourself watch Bee Season. And that is not good. Somehow, the directors fail to transport the viewer fully into the characters' world, so you're left observing how this scene works or that doesn't. At its best, the movie explores the deeply human need for spiritual and emotional connection. At its worst, it's melodramatic and obvious. But its heart is so evidently in the right place, you can't help wishing it well.
Myla Goldberg's well-received novel, on which the film is based, is responsible for the most farfetched plot elements, particularly the mother's secret life. But Goldberg had the opportunity, as a novelist, to set the stage, to educate the reader about the Kabbalistic practices integral to the story. The best screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal seems to be able to do here is have the characters say a few lines about Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase meaning "to repair the world," or have Saul, the father, explain the significance of transmuting letters in Jewish mysticism. What is novel about Bee Season, the book and the movie, is the connection it finds between the Kabbalah and the American celebration of children's competitive spelling: Both focus on the study of letters, but for different purposes. But what is moving about both versions is the tragic miscommunication among the members of one highly educated and spiritually attuned nuclear family.
Early on, it's clear that 11-year-old Eliza Naumann (newcomer Flora Cross) feels invisible in her home. Her charismatic father favors her older brother, Aaron (Max Minghella), a gifted cellist, and her mother, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), keeps mostly to herself. Cross, with her lovely blue eyes, cleft chin and freckles, convincingly plays this serious, unreal little girl, who discovers by chance that she is a spelling prodigy. Once Eliza wins her school bee, her father, a religious-studies professor, takes her under his wing, and she not only becomes his prize pupil but his soul mate.
Saul is convinced his daughter shares a gift with only a handful of Jewish mystics, to "reach the ear of God," and believes she, with careful study, can achieve a transcendence he can only dream of. Unfortunately, his narcissistic personality cannot fathom the destructiveness of his obsessive attachment. Aaron starts looking for God in all the wrong places (winding up in a Hare Krishna commune with Kate Bosworth, not bad). Miriam, unbeknownst to anyone, wanders in and out of strangers' houses, leaving with personally significant objects. Eliza dives into spiritual waters too deep for her years, partially to please her father, but also to secure some peace in the midst of her increasingly fractured family.
Gere, with his history of involvement with Tibetan Buddhism, is an interesting choice for Saul (who was a cantor in the novel). It's not a great leap to believe his character's passion for enlightenment, and he deftly conveys Saul's well-intentioned but controlling love. His Saul is far more sympathetic than the father in the novel, despite his aggravating pride in being the family chef, and the way he snaps his fingers for the phone. Binonche has a much tougher role in playing the underwritten Miriam. She's clearly on the path towards a nervous breakdown, but aside from repeated flashbacks to her parents' crashed car, little is explained. Binoche, however, succeeds as a silent-film actress in the transparency of her emotions. Her lack of vanity, as the circles under Miriam's eyes deepen daily, is admirable. Aaron is also broadly drawn in the film (the book provides more context for his extreme actions), but the sensitive, darkly handsome Minghella manages to make him believable. As in the book, the affection between the siblings is moving.
Bee Season is not helped by the success of the documentary Spellbound or the Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or the 2000 novel, for that matter. Whereas the subject was once fresh, now it is familiar, and the use of the spelling bee here is more symbolic than suspenseful. The filmmakers' penchant for special effects to show how Eliza visualizes words (dancing seeds spell "dandelion" in the air, for instance), is a little cutesy and feels arbitrary. By the time Eliza winds up at the Nationals, it's clear her contest is not about spelling. It's not necessary, or even advisable, for the filmmakers to spell it all out for the audience. Ambiguity exists in narrative as in life. But it would be nice, at the film's conclusion, to understand why this family is smiling.
-Wendy R. Weinstein