Bee Season Review

Nov 14, 2005 | 6:04am EST

The mind is a terrible thing to waste. This is what religious studies professor and Kabbalah enthusiast Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) believes. He encourages his family to go that extra step both in academics and in spirituality. But he also often alienates them as he is only able to shine his light on one of them at a time. When 9-year-old Eliza (Flora Cross) turns out to be a spelling bee prodigy well it’s just the icing on Saul’s cake but it further tears at the family’s delicate fabric. As Saul spends more and more time with Eliza her older brother Aaron (Max Minghella) rebels by experimenting with other religions while their mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) sort of goes off the deep end. With her family disintegrating before her young eyes it’s up to Eliza to put the broken pieces of her world back together with the power of letters and words. Speaking of bees the Oscar talk is buzzing especially around Gere’s performance. The actor definitely gives one of his finer turns as Saul a man who thinks he has a well-adjusted family only to slowly realize he simply has a family--warts and all. OK maybe those warts aren’t entirely normal. It seems little Eliza played remarkably well by first-timer Flora Cross is actually able to transcend the mere spelling of a word and get inside the letters. Saul teaches her Kabbalistic practices and helps her achieve a somewhat dangerous pathway to God. Yeah weighty stuff for a little girl but Cross deftly handles the chores. Minghella (son of director Anthony Minghella) also does a nice job as the religiously confused but equally brilliant son. Unfortunately Binoche is reduced to playing a woman knee-deep in a nervous breakdown. Of course in the hands of the ever-so-delicate French actress it isn’t too cliched. Based on the novel by Myla Goldberg Bee Season is indeed an unexpected mixture of themes--something so inherently cerebral it seems like it would be hard to translate to the big screen. But adapted by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (the mother of actors Jake and Maggie) the film wades through all the Jewish mysticism and competition pressures to get to the point: the deconstruction and rebuilding of a family. And with the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) at the helm Bee Season also is surprisingly visual. The most poignant scenes involve Eliza spelling out complex words with the letters appearing around her in some otherworldly form. Of course most of us in the audience won’t have a clue how to spell some of those words. Hats off to those real kids who can.

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