In Bee Season, based on a Myra Goldberg novel about spelling bees, Richard Gere plays Saul, a Berkeley professor who has not-quite-successfully pursued lofty goals of understanding and enlightenment in his life’s work of studying the Kabbalah. The intensity of his pursuit of his goals places its demands on his family, who all respond to this pressure in unexpected ways.
PG-13 for thematic elements, language, sensuality
His wife Miriam, played by the always contemplative Juliette Binoche, is depressed, it would seem, living a little outside the golden sphere of her husband’s mystic zeal. She works and comes home at odd hours, has to leave suddenly for opaque reasons. Their son Aaron (Max Minghella) breaks rank with the family’s Judaism and takes up with the Hare Krishnas for a while; with their bright clothing and lives filled with food and chanting and colorful ceremony, they are clearly having all the fun that living with Dr. Enlightenment, aka Dad, hasn’t been offering lately. It Saul’s nine-year-old daughter, Emily, who has the most surprises up her sleeve, however, when it turns out she’s a spelling whiz, with powers that extend far beyond the ordinary.
The Kabbalah makes perfect sense to Emily: She has the mojo. This gives Dad the perfect excuse to switch his focus, rather abruptly, from encouraging his reluctant son to follow in his footsteps to pouring his knowledge into his daughter as if she were an empty vessel, nudging her along the spiritual roads he was denied access to by his own limitations. The young actress Flora Cross is grace under pressure as this clear-eyed, steady little girl, but sometimes we wish her imagination had been left to us to contrive, as when the cutesy animations of fluttering birds show how words appear to her.
Bee Season displays a cross section of beliefs within a single nuclear family: The mother who has traded one set of beliefs (her family’s Catholicism) for another (her husband’s Judaism) and can now see that her husband isn’t as wise as he professes and yearns to be; the son who is disillusioned by the sudden loss of his father’s attention and searching for his own answers to his own questions; the daughter who has the mystical powers and doesn’t even need faith – she comes with her own support system; and Saul, Richard Gere, who acts surprised that everyone around is not him. Suddenly this all looks so familiar: Richard Gere as a brittle, self-centered guy, and somehow there’s less at the core of this film for it. A Jeff Bridges or Gene Hackman would have wrestled with the spiritual dilemmas in a more visceral way, shown how they can wound almost physically.
So when the true extent of Miriam’s spiritual crisis is revealed, no one is ready to step up and handle it, so she’s – surprise – shipped off to a psych ward for a few months. But somehow this is done as quietly as a kid would be sent off to boarding school, and my credulity was strained that an event like this would not rend their family more than it appears to do here.
In the end, this drama about a family that looks good from the outside but with an array of soul-shaking crises stirring them up from the inside is not much fun. Bee Season’s final stretch reaches a little too far for my already extended credit. It is frustrating as well that in this study of comparative religion, we end up learning about as much about the Kabbalah as the latest story about Madonna might reveal.
For a more satisfying drama about spelling bees, watch the documentary Spellbound. For more satisfying drama about families in spiritual crisis, watch the films of Bergman or Ozon, or Altman’s overlooked Cookie’s Fortune. While McGehee and Siegel have a good eye and offer the potential for a rich drama, their animation trickery and inconceivable emotional reactions create needless distance between us and a story that stops short of pulling us all the way into its belief system.