Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) has a talent that has gone undetected by her prodigious family - she can see words forming in her head. When her Kabbalah studies professor dad Saul Naumann (Richard Gere, "Shall We Dance") finds out she's won the school spelling bee, he begins to focus all his attentions on her, believing that not only can she win a national title, but that she may be capable of the ancient mystical connection to God known as Shefa. But Ellie begins to sense that her dad's redirected enthusiasm is rupturing the rest of the Naumann family during the "Bee Season."
Scott McGehee and David Siegel ("Suture," "The Deep End") last explored familial dynamics in the visually lush "The Deep End," but while "Bee Season" is warmed with similarly rich hues (cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, "The Deep End," "Young Adam") and brightened with inventive special effects, it doesn't have the same emotional impact. It's difficult to pin the blame on Richard Gere's performance, which is subtle and has much to commend it, but he seems to have underplayed by one degree too little, perhaps afraid to lose too much sympathy for Saul. The filmmakers are also tackling four distinct story lines (Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal ("Losing Isaiah") adapted the Myla Goldberg novel), and Miriam Naumann's (Juliette Binoche, "Chocolat") descent into emotional breakdown is handled too ambiguously, not rooted in enough emotional back story. Still, "Bee Season" is certainly intellectually interesting and beautiful to look at and young Flora Cross makes a noteworthy debut.
The filmmakers introduce their theme over the opening credits, as a giant letter A is airlifted into place on the sign announcing Oakland as the Naumanns's home town. Saul's children understand his character better than he does. Ellie thinks he's too preoccupied to have attended her school bee (he didn't see the note she slipped under his door) while elder brother Aaron (director Anthony's son, Max Minghella) knows that a spelling bee win will rock dad's world. Sure enough, as Saul serves dinner he tells El that 'letters and words hold the secret to the Universe.' As he begins to reserve time for Eliza, he neglects the musical sessions he's routinely had with Aaron and chooses to ignore Miriam's increasingly erratic behavior and absences. Aaron rebels by searching for enlightenment outside of Judaism and thinks he finds it when he meets the beautiful Chali (Kate Bosworth, "Beyond the Sea"), a member of the Hare Krishna sect. Miriam, meanwhile, is shown coming home late and leaving at odd times to drive around and visit an apartment and stately home (McGehee and Siegel connect these two and beautifully tie them into their religious theme with God's eye view shots of each walking up a path).
While the film doesn't come from Eliza's point of view, she is the central, grounding character and Cross, who speaks little when she's not spelling, has a highly emotive face that the camera just loves. The directors also bring us inside her mind with representations of how she sees the words, with the fluff of a dandelion forming itself into letters around her head or a bird made out of folded paper alighting on the letters spelling origami. The visual theme of shattered glass is constant, from the Kabbalah story Saul tells about making God's world whole again to the kaleidoscope Miriam passes down to Eliza. When Eliza secretly speeds up her practice of the Shefa ritual, her success is pictured through her mother's old toy. If only the directors had chosen a stronger device to get us inside Miriam's head. Binoche does what she can and creates a woman becoming increasingly fragile and Minghella does well with the smart but wounded Aaron. Gere is a gentle man nonetheless possessed by his own interests and their reflection in his family, but he turns a blind eye to perceived weaknesses. Gere doesn't play his obsessions quite strongly enough, however, so Eliza's healing choice at film's end may be as mysterious as the Shefa to some.
"The Bee Season" is a beautiful, thought-provoking film, but it's reliance on poetic imagery over keen characterization keeps its audience at arms length.
The Nauman family is well-adjusted and happy living in their northern Californian college town. Saul (Richard Gere) is a religious studies professor and obsessed with words, Miriam (Juliet Binnoche) is a talented scientist, son Aaron (Max Minghella) is a music savant and Eliza (Norah Cross) is a normal kid. But, when she wins a local spelling bee, then the district competition, the family dynamic undergoes shattering changes in “Bee Season.”
Eliza’s previously untapped talent for words becomes a catalyst for Saul, a man dedicated to the magic of letters. He sees her new ability as amazing and decides to teach her the secrets of his great passion, the Kabbalah, as her path to speak with God. This obsession resonates throughout the family as Saul begins to spend his time coaching Eliza, to the detriment of wife and son, for each next level of the spelling bee, from the regional competition all the way to the nationals. But, Eliza’s talent for words is also the catalyst that will shake up the Nauman family in profound ways and lay bare Miriam’s dark secret.
Bee Season” is adapted for the screen by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal from the best-selling novel by, Myla Goldberg, and, unusually, has a directing duo, Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“The Deep End”). The screenplay does a solid job in giving even shrift to the four Naumans. Although Eliza is the focus of the film and, in the end, the family savior, the others are all fully developed, making the Naumans a believable and deeply troubled family unit in need of being saved.
As Saul immerses himself in training Eliza, using his teaching skills to coach his daughter, he is unaware that he has cut himself off from Miriam and Aaron. Miriam starts making nocturnal visits to strangers homes, taking trinkets from each for some (for much of the film) inexplicable reason. Aaron, who loved the closeness to his father, especially when they played classical duets together, begins to question the faith of his father, Judaism, and begins to explore alternatives.
Bee Season” is not a simple film as each character delves into his/her own world. The Nauman family disintegrates before our eyes even as Eliza rises through the spelling ranks to be one of the chosen few for the elite National Spelling Bee. Saul’s obsession with his daughter and words estrange him from wife and son, but he doesn’t see it until a warning flare is fired high in the sky. The seemingly together Miriam has a secret that she has been able to conceal. Until now. And Aaron, rebelling against his father’s faith, goes to extremes, with the help of a pretty Hare Krishna, Chali (Kate Bosworth).
The helmers keep these stories, as the lives of the Naumans fragment and shatter, evenly told with subdued, but intense, performances all around. Little Flora Cross holds her own opposite vets Gere and Binoche with her quiet, thoughtfulness. This is complimented by the varied and interesting ways the filmmakers show how the youngster forms words in her mind. The word “Dandelion” is accompanied by the vision of that flower’s windblown seeds forming the letters for Eliza. This technique, with different and varied treatments, is repeated throughout the film to very good and imaginative affect..
Richard Gere shows Saul as an intelligent man and loving father but too easily absorbed in his own world of words and the Kabbalah, which has life-changing affect on the Naumans. Juliette Binoche slowly builds up her troubled character as Miriam breaks down before us. Max Menghella’s Aaron grows up as he loses his adolescent idolization for his father and begins the process to become a man.
Bee Season” is an evenly paced, interestingly told family drama that uses the innocent device of the spelling bee as the thing that changes the Nauman family irrevocably. I give it a B-.
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