Bee Season

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 11/16/05 08:27:56

"What are words for? When no one listens anymore…"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Ever wondered what kind of parents produce a spelling bee champion? As in that weird sub-species of child prodigy showcased in the hit documentary Spellbound (2002)? Bee Season, based on the bestselling 2000 novel by Myla Goldberg, takes a closer look at just this question. It’s the third movie from co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and their follow-up to 2001’s The Deep End.

To the outside world, the Naumanns are a prosperous and happy American nuclear family. Saul (Richard Gere) is a Professor of Religious Studies at Berkeley, and the charismatic centre of his home. Saul lavishes most of his attention and affection on teenage son Aaron (Max Minghella), to reward his budding interest in Judaism and Hebrew scholarship. Scientist mum Miriam (Juliette Binoche) is content to remain in the background, loving her children from a distance. Eleven year-old Eliza (Flora Cross) passes unnoticed, having demonstrated little academic ability. But then she wins the District Spelling Bee, and it’s enough to throw the precarious equilibrium of the Naumann household dangerously off balance.

It turns out that each family member is following a personal quest to become closer to God. When they were married, Saul introduced Miriam to his guiding principle of Tikkun Olam – Hebrew for “to repair the world”. She has become obsessed with this metaphor for religious perfection, and the notion of restoring what has been shattered. Aaron feels abandoned by his father so, in an act of teenage rebellion, rejects the religion in which he was raised to experiment elsewhere. Saul, meanwhile, is preoccupied with Eliza’s spelling “gift”. In line with a teaching of the Kabbalah, a school of Jewish mysticism, he thinks her refined ability to concentrate the mind on letters and words has opened a direct connection between her and God. Poor Eliza is stuck in the middle, and can’t help being influenced by what’s going on around her.

Saul’s controlling father figure is central to the movie. A househusband and temple cantor in the book, he’s transformed here into an Alfa Romeo-driving alpha male. When I read the book, Richard Gere seemed physically wrong for the role, but his roguish vanity turns out to be perfect. And his bewilderment and disappointment at the way events unfold helps maintain our sympathy. Binoche, complete with Californian-tinged accent, is terrific as the burdened and mysterious Miriam, obsessed by her childhood kaleidoscope and the recollection of her parents’ death in a car crash.

Paris-born Flora Cross, who plays Eliza in her movie debut, even looks like Binoche. In her mournful face is writ large a significant theme of the movie: the attraction of patterns and symbols for their promise of security, and their ultimate falsehood as a source of refuge. Aaron is the family member who loses the most back-story in transition from page to screen, but Max Minghella (soon to be seen in Syriana and Art School Confidential) makes believable the twists and turns of Aaron’s development. By making his religious “father substitute” mentor, Chali (Kate Bosworth), an attractive young woman rather than a man (as he was in the novel), the screenplay unnecessarily mixes Aaron’s religious motives with sexual desire. But Bosworth makes up for it with a surprisingly charming and unaffected performance.

Mixing the “truly American tradition” of the spelling bee with Jewish mysticism is hardly the typical recipe for a Hollywood family drama. Nor is Goldberg’s introspective novel obviously cinematic. But the book was compared to American Beauty on release, and that probably caught the eye of producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa (Cold Mountain, Election). But Bee Season is more character study than black comedy. The adaptation, by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (screenwriter of Running on Empty and mother of Jake and Maggie), takes liberties with the details but stays true to the book’s ideas about communication and connection. The four stories weave together beautifully, assisted by the deft cutting of editor Lauren Zuckerman and fluid camerawork of Giles Nuttgens (The Deep End, Star Wars Episodes II and III).

Goldberg mixes the mundane and the fantastical, and McGehee and Siegel take an even-handed approach to both. Mostly, they are content to let us discover for ourselves what is going on but there are some clumsy patches of over-explicit dialogue. The worst comes near the end when a mentally unbalanced person suddenly comes out of their reverie to deliver a Hollywood homily that also sums up the movie’s message.

I’m happy to report that Bee Season retains the book’s off-hand, ambiguous ending. In the directors’ capable hands, and backed by Peter Nashel’s sad, elliptical score, the final scene makes the ethereal tangible. It lingers in the mind as something rather strange and beautiful.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.