Myla Goldberg’s 2000 novel BEE SEASON anticipated the rise of
the spelling bee as an entertainment feature. After all, since the book
was published, we’ve had the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary
SPELLBOUND and the 2005 award-winning Broadway musical
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. But Goldberg’s
novel – and by extention the film adapted from it -- is about much more
than just spelling bees. It’s about a family coming apart as families
sometimes do. The film was adapted by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal who
years ago penned the intriguing RUNNING ON EMPTY and directed by
the team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel who were responsible for
THE DEEP END.
The major plot strand of BEE SEASON centers on young Eliza
Nauman (an extraordinary debut by Flora Cross) who effortlessly manages
to win a series of spelling competitions. As the youngest child of Saul
(Richard Gere), a religion professor with a specific interest in the Kaballah,
and Miriam (Juliette Binoche), a scientist, Eliza is the overlooked child. She
lives in the shadow of her older brother Aaron (Max Minghella), clearly
Dad’s favorite. Only Aaron is allowed into Saul’s study where they play
music together. We are supposed to believe that Saul is something of a
bully – a tyrannical man who dominates his wife and children but in
Gere’s hands the character is more mensch than ogre. This is odd
given that early in his career the actor specialized in playing cocky men
(e.g., AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN). As he’s aged, Gere has
mellowed out and his performing style has become looser and less
remote – exactly opposite from the qualities necessary to play Saul.
When Saul discovers that he has a budding genius in Eliza, he
transfers his attentions from Aaron and Miriam to the child. Eventually,
he discovers that she has a special gift – when she is asked to spell
a word, she goes into a trance that allows her to literally see the letters.
Convinced that she could communicate with God, Saul tutors his daughter
not only in spelling but in the mysticism of the Kabbalah.
With his attentions lavished on his daughter, Saul doesn’t seem
to notice that his wife and son are undergoing crises of their own. Miriam
comes home later and later. The audience sees her sneaking into homes
and retrieving various objects like an earring or an ashtray – and the
implication for those unfamiliar with the source material is that she
is collecting the detritus of various affairs, although we later learn the
true nature of these visits.
Meanwhile Aaron is on a spiritual quest that leads him to reject
his Jewish heritage and go searching – he stops by a Catholic church but
eventually falls under the spell of an attractive blonde Hare Krishna
named Chali (Kate Bosworth). [Note: This is one of the many major
departures from Goldberg’s novel.] This is a misstep, because instead
of leaving the audience with the feeling that Aaron is really undergoing
a spiritual crisis, we feel he’s more in the grip of hormonal fluctuations.
In THE DEEP END, McGehee and Siegel had a tendency to overdo
the symbolic – the use of water in that film was palpable. In BEE SEASON,
they overuse words like “light,” the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, the
idea of repairing the world through social action, and the idea of broken
or fractured things – most baldly symbolized by a kaleidoscope passed on
from mother to daughter.
As I’ve mentioned, Gere is miscast. He and Binoche have no
chemistry and are not particularly believable as husband and wife.
Binoche – who is one of my favorite actresses – tries mightily to make
more of the character she has been handed to play. She tries valiantly but
appears to be defeated by the directors and the script. The two youngsters,
however, are terrific. First off, kudos go to the casting director for hiring
two young performers who look like they could be Binoche’s children.
Minghella, whose father Anthony directed Binoche to her Oscar in
THE ENGLISH PATIENT, offers a terrific performance as the frustrated
Aaron. He possesses charisma and that ineffable star quality and I’m
looking forward to seeing him in other role. Cross, whose older brothers
are actors, makes an auspicious debut. She’s simply extraordinary as Eliza.
Both BEE SEASON and THE DEEP END suffer the same fate: there’s
a chilly, remote quality to them that keeps the audience at bay. Instead
of being drawn into the story, we are kept at arm’s length. We can look
and admire, but there’s something crucial missing. And that is a shame,
since the material held so much promise.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, a scene of
sensuality and brief strong language
Running time: 104 mins.
Viewed at the Fox Screening Room.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.