Lack of explanation leads to an off `Season'

MovieReview C+

November 18, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Words are revered - literally - in Bee Season, a drama in which a couple's marriage unravels as their daughter advances in a national spelling bee. While such reverence for language is refreshing, and leads to some beautiful imagery (including an opening lifted straight out of Fellini's La Dolce Vita), the film ultimately is a letdown, leaving too many questions unanswered and ending in a gesture that doesn't really solve anything.

But most problematic is the film's reliance on Kabbalah, a mystical offshoot of Judaism in which words are vested with a spiritual resonance. Not that there's anything wrong with Kabbalah, which has become popular of late as the spiritualism of choice for Madonna and other celebrities. It's just that Bee Season does a lousy job of explaining what it's all about, and without that sort of base knowledge, viewers are left scratching their heads about just what is going on here.

Richard Gere plays Saul Naumann, a university professor (and boy, do his lectures sound mystically ponderous) and one of those dads around whom the entire family is collapsing while he remains blissfully unaware. His wife, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), seems vaguely dissatisfied, his daughter, Eliza (newcomer Flora Cross), distant and sullen, his son, Aaron (Max Minghella), on the cusp of teenage rebellion. Saul notices none of this, focusing instead on talk of connecting with God through words and achieving spiritual nirvana through the study of ancient Jewish texts.

Things change when Eliza quietly wins her class spelling bee, then keeps advancing through subsequent levels. Although the film never makes clear why, there's the feeling that Saul never thought much about his daughter. But, now that she's starting to make a word-oriented mark for herself, he finally starts noticing.

"This is important," he says, looking at one of her trophies. He congratulates her not because she worked hard, or because she accomplished something, or because he's proud, but because she's done something he sees as "important." The look of self-satisfaction on Gere's face says it all, making us understand that Saul is congratulating himself more than his daughter. Not realizing that Eliza's gifts come to her naturally - she essentially "sees" words in the air when asked to spell them, suggesting she may be more tuned-in to Kabbalah than Saul can ever hope to be - her dad takes over, forcing her to train and insisting she understand not just how to spell words, but also how to revere them.

There's only room in Saul's self-centric universe for one additional person, however. It's been a long time since Miriam has shared his space, and with Eliza now in there, poor Aaron finds himself suddenly adrift. Which makes him ripe for the picking when a fetching Hare Krishna (a nearly translucent Kate Bosworth) saunters up to him at a local park and begins suggesting alternate spiritualities.

Meanwhile, poor Miriam has turned to a life of trespassing and petty theft that leaves her locked up in a mental ward. Miriam's affliction makes for a lot of pretty pictures involving mobiles and other hanging objects, but doesn't really advance the story much.

Things get wrapped up at the national spelling bee, where the family's fate ends up in young Eliza's hands. Her solution displays all the trappings of a grand, selfless gesture, but it's tough to say what it accomplishes. Which, sadly, can be said about Bee Season itself.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Bee Season (Fox Searchlight)

Starring Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross.

Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.

Rated PG-13.

Time 104 minutes.

Review C+

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