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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Bee Season" (2005)

One of the first things “Bee Season” tries to convey is that words—letters in particular—have such strong spiritual connotations that they can help one reach the ear of God. I know. It’s a lofty and somewhat silly philosophy, but at least it comes from a character we’re not necessarily meant to relate to in the first place. Then again, the movie does have countless moments where the daughter—a spelling bee champ—has hallucinations about the letters forming in her mind. Had the movie not bought into its own ideas so much, I might have stuck with it.

Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“The Deep End,” “Suture”) and based on the novel by Myla Goldberg, this drama looks at the unexpected downward spiral of a seemingly idyllic family. Just as the young daughter, Eliza (Flora Cross), starts to excel in regional spelling bees, her father, Saul (Richard Gere), takes an active interest in her newfound glory and ends up withdrawing from the rest of the family.

Meanwhile, the older son, Aaron (Max Minghella) forges a new spiritual path for himself after meeting a young girl (Kate Bosworth). He finds himself moving further and further into her world—that of Hare Krishnas—and further away from the Jewish faith on which his parents raised him. While all this goes on, the mother, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), has a tendency to disappear late at night and wander into strange houses.

While we can plainly see what drives three of the four family members into different directions in their own personal searches for God, it is the mother whose quest remains elusive until the very end. Throughout the film, she seems to be the most grounded and well aware of the drastic changes that have been taking place. Like Gere’s character, we try to put the pieces of her odd behavior together.

When the pieces do come together, we find a family that can only find connection on the surface. Saul gets called to task by his wife for spouting off on a religion that she feels has to true meaning for him; he talks just to hear himself talk. Meanwhile, Miriam’s nights out convince Saul that she’s having an affair. As a result, their two children retreat into their own personal underworlds without being able to properly communicate with them or anyone else about it.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to connect with any of them. The movie has a slight coldness about it that does not work in its favor. Gere comes off so pompous and full of himself that when the movie tries to segue into sentiment, the payoff rings false. The mystery behind Bincoche’s character plays out in a series of quick cuts to broken glass that lend the story a bit of mystery, but the final answer comes off as so contrived, so nonsensical that the movie just crumbles under the absurd weight of it.

For all its faults, “Bee Season” remains a well-intended and well acted film. McGehee and Siegel move the story unpredictably while defying convention and Gere excels at this kind of role, as does Binoche, who still retains some of the pensiveness that made her so compelling in Krzystof Kieslowski’s “Blue.” Flora Cross is particularly strong as the daughter. Unfortunately, this uneven movie is made up of a few interesting storylines that can’t seem to fit together well enough. It aims for the Heavens, but it’s almost too up-in-the-air to reach them.

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