Directed: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
A wife and mother begins a downward emotional spiral, as her husband avoids their collapsing marriage by immersing himself in his 11 year-old daughter's quest to become a spelling bee champion.
Movie Reviewsby Mel Valentin
"A subtle, nuanced portrayal of a middle-class family in crisis."
centers on a middle-class Jewish-American family, Saul Naumann (Richard
Gere), a religious studies professor at the University of
California-Berkeley, his wife, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), a French-born
research scientist (and convert to Judaism), their 11-year old
daughter, Eliza (Flora Cross), who discovers a mystical connection to
language, and the esoteric tradition of Kabbalah through her father and
his research when she begins winning spelling bees from the local level
through the national competition held in Washington, D.C., and her
teenage brother, Aaron (Max Minghella), a cellist and her father's
favorite who inevitably finds Saul's attention and affection shifting
to Eliza, once Saul discovers Eliza's gift for language and her
"Tikkun Olam" the Jewish mystical concept of "mending the world," becomes integral to the resolution of the multiple storylines, as Saul begins to introduce Eliza to the Kabbalah. Saul describes a metaphor-laden vision of divine light, broken vessels, and healing through good deeds (which helps to repair the broken vessels, bringing us closer to God). Saul also reveals that he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Abraham Abulafia, a medieval Jewish mystic born in Spain. Abulafia is a key figure in the development of Kabbalah, due to several key texts he wrote and disseminated among select members of the Jewish community. For Saul, Eliza becomes the vessel to help him obtain the unobtainable, communion with God, something he can't accomplish on his own.
Eliza's initial success in the spelling bee acts as a catalyst within her family. Her cold, narcissistic, academic father takes a renewed interest (assuming he had an interest, once) in Eliza, becoming her mentor and trainer for the spelling competitions. Miriam's already cramped, uncommunicative relationship with Saul continues its deterioration, with her connection to her children also undergoing a negative transformation (initially closer to Eliza, she becomes marginalized in the wake of Saul's decision to become Eliza's mentor). Miriam also has some long unresolved emotional issues that have begun to resurface, causing her to behave erratically. Aaron finds himself replaced in Saul's affections by Eliza. The change doesn't so much change Aaron and Eliza's relationship as it does Aaron's relationship with Saul.
Aaron finds himself in a public park one afternoon where he encounters Chali (Kate Bosworth), a young woman who's taken an alternative, Eastern path to spiritual fulfillment. In his obvious attraction to Chali and, later the sense of home and comfort she and her friends offer, Aaron becomes easily swayed into joining an alternative religious community, perhaps permanently. As Bee Season unfolds, it becomes clear that Aaron isn’t alone in his desire for spirituality. Saul, as a professor of religious studies, takes an intellectual approach to spirituality, preferring to live through his daughter. The spelling bee is instrumental in bringing Eliza’s gifts to Saul’s attention, allowing him to live vicariously through Eliza’s growing triumphs, but also through religious instruction, with Eliza functioning as an intermediary for Saul’s spiritual desires (i.e., mystical communion with God).
Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal's adaptation makes several important changes from Goldberg's novel, beginning with the setting (Oakland, California instead of the East Coast), the time period (contemporary as opposed to the period setting), and a change in professions for the two adult characters, Saul, from a cantor at a Jewish synagogue to a religious studies professor, and Miriam, from a lawyer in to the novel to a research scientist in the film. The change in Saul's profession certainly makes sense, since it sharpens (and crystallizes) Saul's academic intellectualism and the mysticism he's incapable of experiencing directly.
Bee Season has several flaws, all of them minor. First, McGehee and Siegel's contemporary setting for Bee Season proves to be problematic in regards to the alternative religious community Aaron joins, since this particular plot development seems to belong in a different decade (even if the California setting is appropriate). Second, Bee Season essentially involves four characters on separate and occasionally overlapping personal journeys. Aaron's personal journey ends abruptly, while Miriam's seems underdeveloped, in large part because her story is told primarily through flashbacks and dialogue-free scenes (it's to McGehee and Siegel's credit, however, that they don't resort to catch-all, reductive answers to explain Miriam's deteriorating condition). Saul undergoes a cathartic moment of insight and spontaneous connection, which also makes him more sympathetic than he otherwise would have been.
It's Eliza's journey, then, that functions as the central storyline. Bee Season allows us to see Eliza's world through her eyes (sometimes literally, as she visualizes words), but more importantly, in how Eliza perceives her family, her role in her family, and her (incorrect) responsibility for the crises that beset her family. With Eliza at the center of Bee Season, a great deal depends on Flora Cross' performance, which may just be the best children's performance since Anna Paquin in The Piano
Gere, Binoche, and Minghella acquit themselves favorably challenging roles, with Gere playing a familiar narcissistic character, while also managing to make him sympathetic to audiences. Likewise with first-time actor Max Minghella, who shows remarkable control of expression and enunciation throughout most of the film. His truncated storyline, however, means that a lack of resolution hangs over his character and, by extension, his performance. Juliette Binoche has to do more with less: her character is the least verbal, leaving her to use facial expressions and body language to create the interior life of a tortured character. (although here, Eliza is far more taciturn and introverted, which, in turn, demands expressivity and nuance from Cross). Not surprisingly, Cross' deliberate, thoughtful speaking style is due to her background: she's an American born and partly raised in France, making her not quite a native speaker. The pauses in her speech patterns perfectly complement the character she plays.