The story of a brainy family’s coming apart lacks a crucial emotional component in “Bee Season.” This intelligent, precision-tooled adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s 2000 bestseller centered on an 11-year-old spelling whiz delves gingerly into mystical territory in charting the separate paths explored by the quartet of characters. But the film is ice cold, never finding a way to invite the viewer into the story, and Richard Gere doesn’t convince as a Jewish biblical scholar. Upscale, literary-oriented types will be lured, but fans of the docu “Spellbound” expecting similar pleasures, along with general auds, will find the Fox Searchlight offering far too highfalutin for words.
Although the tale pivots on the remarkable progress made by the otherwise ordinary Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) in spelling bees from the local level to the national finals, the larger concern of Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal’s carefully structured screenplay is the fragmentation of what on the surface appears to be an accomplished, admirable family.
Saul Naumann (Gere) is a religious studies prof at Berkeley (changed from a folk-singing cantor in the book) particularly taken with the mysticism of the Kabbalah. When Eliza first exhibits her special talent, Saul takes her under his wing, impressing her with the ancient belief that all the secrets of the universe are contained in letters, and deconstructing the alphabet in a way that actually does increase her capacity for spelling.
Saul would seem an ideal head of household, at least in Northern California terms; he imparts knowledge, is home a lot and cooks dinner regularly, plays violin-and-cello duets with his gifted son Aaron (Max Minghella) and is supportive of his wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche). But he conspicuously wears his teacher’s hat at home, and when he pours all his energy into helping Eliza, Aaron and Miriam go their own ways in secretive and dramatic fashions.
From the beginning, pic gives the impression of a velvet-lined machine producing plush images of a perfectionist lifestyle that’s rich both in substance (the family’s resplendent craftsman-style house) and in mind. After a giant silver letter “A” is transported by helicopter across San Francisco Bay, letters keep popping up in mysterious circumstances and configurations, which increasingly comes to relate to the new process by which Eliza is able to “see” the proper spelling of even the most obscure words.
Dramatically, however, focus gradually shifts away from Eliza in favor of her brother and mother. In an act of rebellion that seems both overplayed and under motivated (not to mention anachronistic), Aaron pursues an interest in Hinduism by taking up with a local Hare Krishna group. Granted, his blossoming interest may be mostly spurred by the blond beauty who turns him on to it (Kate Bosworth, as a character not in the book), but when was the last time anyone saw Hare Krishnas around town, even in Berkeley?
More frustrating still is the subplot played out by Miriam, who takes to disappearing in the evening and casing upscale houses for unknown reasons. Flash cuts suggest that the French native is still haunted by visions of her parents’ death, which ties in with a Kabbalistic theme favored by Saul about how things that are shattered can be made whole again, a metaphor furthered by the eventual revelation of Miriam’s clandestine activities. (Manner of the visions’ presentation, along with Binoche’s presence, conjures the presumed influence of Krzysztof Kieslowski here.)
Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s first two features, the ultra-indie “Suture” and the more mainstream “The Deep End,” were provocative, carefully calibrated intellectual works in which an absence of feeling was a minor problem at most. In “Bee Season,” however, an emotional component was crucially needed to involve the audience with these rarefied people doing relatively rarefied things.
As it stands, one remains at a distant remove throughout, respectful of the tricky material under consideration and the difficulty of giving it flesh-and-blood onscreen but detached to the point of indifference to its outcome.
Young thesps Minghella and Cross are good enough as the kids, but the adults have problems. The behavior of Binoche’s character is so inscrutable as the film plays out that one more or less dismisses her, as no insight is allowed into her increasingly recessive self.
More crucially, Gere provides the Talmudic scholar with an exuberant, self-satisfied confidence but no sense of depth or reflection; it’s all surface and no inner life, which doesn’t satisfactorily serve the needs of the story.
Fancy special effects illustrate the visions Eliza has when she closes her eyes to come up with proper spellings. Giles Nuttgens’ lensing is ultra-luxuriant, a lead followed in all other tech departments. For the record, the novel was set in the Philadelphia area.