The “Bee” in the title refers to the spelling variety, but anyone expecting another “Spellbound” from this movie is going to be very much disappointed. One of the members of the Naumann family that we watch disintegrating in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s film (adapted by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal from a novel by Myla Goldberg) is, to be sure, an eleven-year old girl who proves almost preternaturally successful in spelling competitions, calmly progressing from her school’s tryouts to the national championship. But in “Bee Season,” little Eliza (Flora Cross) isn’t just talented with letters; according to her father Saul (Richard Gere), she’s one of those chosen individuals who can tap into the most rarefied regions of reality, those profound areas embraced in the Kabbalah, that ancient form of Jewish mysticism in which–we’re told–the deepest secrets of the cosmos are comprehended in the alphabet. That’s not all, however. While Saul and Eliza together grasp at those universal truths through their spelling training, Aaron (Max Minghella), the girl’s older brother, is seeking his own route to higher understanding–an effort that takes him, through the agency of an attractive recruiter named Chali (Kate Bosworth), into the Hare Krishna movement. And most bewildering of all, Saul’s scientist wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche), apparently haunted by the memory of her parents’ death in an automobile accident, suffers a mental breakdown involving an obsession with stealing objects that she then arranges into a huge collage–an apparent illustration of an idea found in the Kabbalah about how things that have been broken can be restored to wholeness. (Presumably the suggestion being made here is that the Naumann family fabric can eventually be put back together again too, although the narrative remains suspended on that point.)
Like McGehee and Siegel’s previous films, “Suture” and “The Deep End,” this one is lovingly crafted–Giles Nuttgens’ widescreen lensing is lustrous, Kelly McGehee’s production design elegant, and Peter Nashel’s music score subtly effective. But it doesn’t succeed in articulating its ideas coherently or dramatizing them effectively. “Bee Season” is handsome to look at but both emotionally inert and thematically muddled. The individual family members’ fascination with spiritual fulfillment coincides with the family’s disintegration as a unit, but what are we to read from this? That the fascination itself causes the collapse? Or that it offers the only hope to forestall or counteract it? Or both? The picture never makes clear which of the options it’s promoting–or whether it’s promoting any at all. Still, the ambiguity might have carried weight if it had been conveyed with dramatic power. That it doesn’t is partially due to McGehee and Siegel’s direction, which seems over-controlled and showy, and from structural inadequacies in Gyllenhaal’s script, which–for example–doesn’t sufficiently clarify the reasons behind Miriam’s breakdown and simply lops off young Aaron’s side of the story with no resolution whatsoever. But the film’s weakness also derives from casting problems. Gere never convinces as a rabbinical scholar, and Binoche seems all wrong as Miriam, getting the character’s fragility right but little else. (Indeed, one even wonders why the character–who’s supposedly a convert to Judaism from Catholicism, would have the name Miriam in the first place.) And while Minghella–son of director Anthony–captures Max’s moroseness, by the end one might think he’s done so entirely too well, exhibiting little else. Cross, meanwhile, is directed to project a general impassivity to suggest Eliza’s older-than-her-years soulfulness, and while that’s a perfectly defensible choice, it doesn’t make her an immediately sympathetic young protagonist.
The upshot is that “The Bee Season” is one of those films you can perhaps appreciate analytically but never really connect with. Ultimately one can admire the struggle of the Naumanns somehow to talk to God, but it would be nice if they said something intelligible to us in the process. As it is, while they’re striving, each in his own way, for enlightenment, their efforts leave us resolutely in the dark–and not just because the lights are out in the auditorium.