Bee Season (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It would be unfair and inaccurate to refer to Bee Season as "another dysfunctional family drama," although, in essence, that's what it is. Adapting from Myla Goldberg's novel, co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) have fashioned a film that traverses an unusual path through the minefield of a splintering family. In addition to spelling bees (which the title alludes to), Bee Season explores Jewish mysticism, mental illness, and the Hare Krishna religion (which may be making its first screen appearance since Airplane!). In the end, it all seems too much for one small movie to contain. Parts of Bee Season work better than others, but I left the theater feeling more like I had watched the outline of a movie than been immersed in a fully realized motion picture.

The essence of Bee Season can be distilled into two main themes. The first, which focuses on the lack of communication between members of the Naumann family, is presented effectively. When we first meet this four-person clan - father Saul (Richard Gere), mother Mimi (Juliette Binoche), son Aaron (Max Minghella), and daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) - they appear to be a well-adjusted, upper middle class Jewish family. Gradually, however, the cracks appear, and each misstep by one of the Naumanns widens the gaps. It doesn't take long before we understand that these people do not understand the art of communication, despite their fascination with words. When Flora wins a school spelling bee, she would rather slip a letter under her father's study door than tell him the news in person. Aaron is reluctant to introduce his new girlfriend, Chali (Kate Bosworth), to his family, or reveal his intention to join the Hare Krishnas. Mimi, who teeters on the brink of madness, has been keeping a secret from Saul for the entirety of their married life. Simple conversations about anything of substances is beyond these people. And Saul is blissfully unaware that something is wrong until the house of cards collapses.

Unfortunately, the film's approach to theology is unconvincing. Saul is obsessed with the Kabbalah. Not only does he teach a religious studies course about the subject at Berkeley, where he is a professor, but he devotes a portion of his private time to its study. When he believes that Flora's amazing aptitude with spelling may offer a conduit to God ("words and letters hold all the secrets of the universe"), he takes a sudden interest in his daughter, whom he had previously barely acknowledged. Indeed, Flora appears to be touched by something, although it could as easily be a form of autism as the Hand of God. Meanwhile, the coldness of Jewish mysticism as espoused by his father isn't enough for Aaron. He needs more. And when a pretty blonde disciple of Krishna shows interest, who is he to refuse? The problem is, directors McGehee and Siegel's incorporation of mysticism into the film's fundamental structure is inelegant. I didn't buy it. It seems like a contrivance. And that's a problem because so much of Bee Season is wrapped up in our ability to accept, in the context of this story, the existence of the supernatural.

In what may seem to be a contradiction of terms, the characters all have arcs, but none of these individuals is well developed. They are advanced in fits and starts, with the expansiveness of the book being chopped up into manageable bites. It's like what happens when an analog signal is digitized. What was originally smooth becomes a series of plateaus, drops, and rises. The emotional growth of these characters is not seamless; it's marked by a series of discontinuities. Powerful dramas show us gradual and believable growth in the protagonists. Bee Season cuts corners. (This is frequently the result of attempting to condense a complex character-based novel into a 100-minute motion picture.)

Bee Season's depiction of Flora's magical ability to spell almost any word straddles the line between being clever and too cute. At one point, sprouting seedlings arrange themselves into characters of the alphabet. On another occasion, an origami bird alights by letters in a banner hanging on a wall. It's visually inventive, and gets the point across, but it also gives the filmmakers an opportunity to show off.

Acting is one of the film's strong suits. Young Flora Cross, who was 11 when the movie was filmed, is a natural actress. There's no artifice in the performance, nor is there a sense that she's forcing things. Seemingly without effort, she becomes serious, studious Eliza. And there's a distinct, welcome absence of cuteness. Many child actors try to win us over with winsome smiles and charm; that's not the case here. Meanwhile, Max Minghella does the best he can with a choppily written role. (Aaron would have benefited greatly from a handful of additional scenes.) Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche are professionals, although Gere fares better here. His is the meatier adult role. Like Minghella, Binoche has to be satisfied with doing the best she can with meager material.

Whatever else it may be, Bee Season is an interesting motion picture. And the protagonists, while fitfully developed, hold their fascinations. The deeper we look into the character of Saul, the clearer the portrait becomes of a self-centered and egotistical human being. To the extent that he is responsible for tearing his family apart and is oblivious to his own faults, he resembles Jeff Daniel's patriarch in The Squid and the Whale (a more compelling dysfunctional family drama). There's no shortage of material on the screen in Bee Season - it's just not assembled in a satisfying manner.

Bee Season (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2005-11-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1