A family sits at the heart of the evocative "Bee Season," a family with the expected insecurities, yearnings and doubts. But as those who know the work of directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel could predict, if "Bee Season" is a family drama, it's one of unforeseen daring, resonance and complexity.
Those qualities and then some appear in Myla Goldberg's bestselling novel that adds esoteric Jewish mysticism, religious seeking and psychological trauma to a story of what transpires when 11-year-old elementary school student Eliza Naumann discovers an unanticipated gift for spelling words. Difficult and impressive words, the kind that allow you to win big at local and national spelling bees.
McGehee and Scott, for their part, are coolly accomplished filmmakers whose belief in the ability of intelligent melodrama to reveal truths energized 2001's "The Deep End." Here again, they get a great deal out of a complex family dynamic.
Despite its title and its plot line, "Bee Season" is not so much about spelling as it is about letters, the powers inherent in them and the way they form words. As Eliza says in the voice-over that starts the film, "My father told me once that individual letters hold all the secrets of the universe. Through them, I could reach the ear of God."
This kind of material can be tricky, esoteric stuff, the kind that traditionally plays better on the page and takes some doing to get right on screen. Though it tinkers with the book -- modifying chronology, moving the location from outside Philadelphia to Berkeley and even changing the sex of a character -- this film takes the ambitious risk of being largely faithful to its source. With the help of clear direction and some excellent acting, especially from Flora Cross in a memorable debut as Eliza, "Bee Season" is affecting in ways that movies have all but given up trying to be.
Credit for this also goes to writer Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, whose Oscar-nominated script for "Running on Empty" showed a gift for family dynamics. Her fine "Bee Season" screenplay is about more than how letters form words, it's about how individuals come together to form a family, about what connects them and what pulls them apart.
Initially, the Naumann family looks like a normal and happy one. Father Saul (Richard Gere) is a religious studies professor (changed from a cantor in the novel), mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) is a scientist, and both children know their place in the family hierarchy.
Older son Aaron (a strong Max Minghella, director Anthony's son), basks in being the favorite, while the younger Eliza doesn't mind being so low on the family food chain that when she wins her school's spelling bee she's too scared of her dad to come right out and tell him.
As the wary, withdrawn dutiful daughter, Cross, a young actress with an exceptional face but no feature experience to speak of, does remarkable work. Her Eliza is completely her own person, emotionally undernourished by her family but surprisingly grounded. We like her so much we want her to keep winning; as we see the world through her eyes, everything becomes illuminated.
Yet as much as we want Eliza to triumph, it becomes increasingly inescapable that her success is changing the Naumann family dynamic. Feeling displaced, Aaron becomes an increasingly secretive spiritual seeker. And Miriam (a breathtaking performance from Binoche) reacts to her daughter's success by retreating further into herself, into the grip of a mysterious series of behaviors.
The family's most pronounced reaction is from Saul, who goes from barely knowing his daughter exists to seeing in her the fulfillment of his dreams. A student of the ancient mystical texts of the cabala (as opposed to the modern shrink-wrapped Madonna/Demi Moore version), he starts to view his daughter's success as a sign that she is spiritually gifted and begins to teach her arcane and potentially dangerous secrets of the 13th century mystic Abraham Abulafia.
As an observant and very Jewish father, Gere is a problematic choice. On the one hand, his role as King David notwithstanding, the actor does not read at all Jewish on screen, and that is a hindrance to this very specific story's believability. On the other hand, Gere's interest in the spiritual qualities of Eastern religion helps him understand the role's background, and his long-standing ability to play characters who are narcissistic ultimately wins us over.
"Bee Season" can't fully be understood apart from its particularly Jewish central concept of \o7tikkun olam\f7, the healing or repairing of the world. The notion that it is a universal responsibility to fix what has been shattered, to attempt to restore what has been damaged, drives this story in tandem with the need all of its characters have, each in his or her own way, to seek transcendence by searching for a personal vision of God. "Bee Season" may start out looking conventional, but it is finally anything but.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language
Times guidelines: Adult scenarios, brief but intense sexual situations
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel.
Producers Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa. Screenplay Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, based on the novel by Myla Goldberg. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. Editor Lauren Zuckerman. Costumes Mary Malin. Music Peter Nashel. Production design Kelly McGehee. Art director Michael E. Goldman. Set decorator Kris Boxell. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In general release.