Richard Gere as Saul Naumann
Juliette Binoche as Miriam Naumann
Flora Cross as Eliza Naumann
Max Minghella as Aaron Naumann
Kate Bosworth as Chali
“Bee Season” is an intriguing and original look at family dysfunction and alternate forms of spirituality that will probably be too cryptic for those expecting a movie about spelling bees.
Young Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) is a spelling prodigy, who wins every spelling bee she enters, putting her on the road to the National Championship in Washington, D.C. Her success brings new purpose to the life of her father Saul (Richard Gere), a religious professor, but at the same time, it drives a wedge into the family, sending her mother (Juliette Binoche) and brother (Max Minghella) on their own spiritual journeys.
This is not a movie about spelling bees. Let’s get that out of the way. This drama, based on the Myla Goldberg novel, is set in the competitive world of spelling bees, but it’s only one of the many plot devices in this family drama, which examines faith, spirituality and what happens to a family’s own belief system when changes occur.
In the broadest strokes, it’s the story of a young girl named Eliza who learns that she’s a spelling virtuoso, something she can do by picturing the words being spelled out in front of her in elaborate ways. Her father, a professor specializing in religious studies, is delighted and starts spending all of his time helping her prepare for her next bee. He also thinks she has a unique gift that will allow her to talk directly to God, which could help with his own studies of the Kabbalah. As they work together, his wife starts disappearing for hours at a time, and his dejected older son Aaron rebels against his father’s Jewish teachings to get involved with a group of Hare Krishnas. Eliza is far too young to know what’s going on, but she thinks her family’s dissolution is her own fault, forcing her to make some tough grown-up decisions.
In some ways, “Bee Season” could be compared to Danny Boyle’s “Millions” if all the humor and irony were removed from it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since this is meant to be a serious drama about family dysfunction, but it also deals with the world from the eyes of a very different child who has to grow up a lot faster than any child should.
Playing as big a part in the movie as the spelling bees is the Kabbalah principle of Tikkun Alum, the idea that the world has fallen apart and that we need to work together to reassemble it. Oddly, that’s how the movie plays, starting out slow and disjointed as it follows various members of the family, and then coming together at the end. Maybe I’m not spiritually minded enough to understand all the ideologies discussed because there were many times where I had no idea what was going on. I was especially confused by the subplot involving Juliette Binoche as his wife Miriam, who spends much of the movie sneaking around and sitting in cars in a trance with flashbacks to some traumatic incident from her past.
Of course, most people’s minds will shut off as soon as the term “Kaballah” is mentioned, because people tend to be wary and skeptical of alternative faiths that they don’t understand, like the Hare Krishnas. After all, it’s the very nature of most people to be suspicious of things we don’t understand. Neither of these faiths play that big a part of the movie nor does it try to preach or convert anyone, because like the spelling bee, they’re just plot devices used to show how the family is growing apart.
Religious references aside, there are two main reasons why “Bee Season” works well as a family drama. First, there’s the solid script by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal–yes, she’s the mother of Jake and Maggie–but more importantly, you can really believe that these four actors are a family, which makes the movie far more heartbreaking.
Of course, we all know how talented Juliet Binoche is, and Miriam is another strong performance from the French actress. Richard Gere isn’t nearly as convincing as a Jewish scholar, and his reaction to his family’s strange behavior is often flat. It almost seems like he’s holding back to allow his two younger co-stars to shine, and in many ways, they are more impressive because of the film’s tough subject matter.
The film’s young star Flora Cross has the potential to become the latest “freaky child actor” in the vein of Haley Joel Osment or Dakota Fanning, because she seems to have a demeanor far older than her young age. Her performance is pretty emotionless, but with all the strange things going on around her, we might not know how to react either. Later in the movie, she starts tapping into her father’s Kaballah teachings, and it’s hard not to hope she’ll pull a Linda Blair or a Carrie at the National Spelling Bee, but that never happens.
Max Minghella–yes, he’s the son of the Oscar winning director–is a talented young actor to watch, delivering a strong performance as Aaron, while Kate Bosworth has a small role as Chali, the pretty girl who inducts Aaron into the world of the Krishnas. Fans of the original book might bristle at the fact that the character’s gender has been changed, but it does make a bit more sense that a teen boy might be convinced to join a cult if there were a pretty girl involved.
Although the movie is slow at times and confusing at others, it looks spectacular thanks to the combined direction of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose last movie “The Deep End” also dealt with difficult family issues. The duo has a great eye for setting up and lighting a scene to make it gorgeous to watch even when it’s just two people talking, and their use of CG animation to show off Eliza’s “mutant powers of spelling” really breaks up the monotony of the slower scenes. I was especially impressed with the graphics of words and pencils being formed from the lead of Eliza’s pencil as she wrote.
The Bottom Line:
“Bee Season” might be a disappointment to anyone expecting a cheery family movie about spelling bees; it’s far too intense for anyone looking for light entertainment. Those unable to open their minds to new ideas and unconventional forms of faith will also probably shut their minds off, although would-be intellectuals and scholars will probably relish the bits that leave the rest of us scratching our heads.