Film Review **: ...Bee Season... Spells Confusion With Ambiguous Plot
Even Richard Gere Can...t Save This Story About Mysticism
By Yong-Yi Zhu
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Written by Naomi Foner
Based on the novel by Myla Goldberg
S-T-R-A-N-G-E. Strange. That word is probably the most appropriate way to describe “Bee Season,” a film about a child with a supernatural talent who participates in spelling bees. The film tries to use her quest as a way to talk about the power of mysticism. The problem is that the mysticism is too mysterious for the audience. Perhaps it’s too cryptic, like a “Mulholland Drive,” or too irrelevant to my life, like “Lost in Translation,” but either way, this movie simply did not connect with me and was tough to understand.
The movie is unfocused and at times terribly ambiguous. The main theme is religion and people’s use of its powers. Richard Gere plays Saul, a theology professor, who is obsessed with finding a way to communicate with God and interacting with higher spirits. He talks about these theories to his family and uses his family as a vessel for his exploration.
Eliza (Flora Cross) is his daughter. Until now, she has just been a less than ordinary little girl. Yet suddenly, she begins to win spelling bees left and right. This change not only causes her to grow up a bit, but also changes the dynamics of the family.
Before, Saul has always focused on his son Aaron’s (Max Minghella) successes. He played violin with his son and didn’t care that it disturbed his daughter’s sleep at night. But when Eliza becomes the success of the family, Saul shifts his focus to her. He wants to show her his religious doctrine to harness her special talents as a speller. He thinks that she is not only brilliant, but also that she has mystical powers. He also wants to bask in the glories of his daughter’s success.
As she proceeds farther and farther along in the spelling bee quest, the family has more and more problems. Saul’s wife, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), becomes troubled for no apparent reason. Aaron turns to other religions to find peace away from his father. And even Eliza is troubled because she doesn’t know what her spelling is doing to tear up the entire family.
Is Eliza going to win the competition? Is she going to reach God like Saul wants? Or is the family going to be torn apart for no reason? The journey is a difficult one to traverse, but the actors subtly bring out the intricacies along the way.
Flora Cross is phenomenal in portraying the little girl prodigy. Her vulnerability and her ability to seem like an insecure child make her the perfect person to play this part. Despite her youth, she seems mature and understanding of her family’s conditions, and that makes her a truly special actress.
Richard Gere’s performance is confusing in the same way that the movie is confusing. On the surface, he looks like a great father. He cares about his wife, his son and his daughter. He takes their wishes to his heart and tries to integrate them into his own. On the other hand, he does impose his will on all of them, and in fact tries to push them too hard. This all shows up in Richard Gere’s strong acting, and to his credit, he aligned himself with the nebulous spirit of the movie.
Juliette Binoche is wonderful as Saul’s wife. She seems weak and fragile and is convincing as someone whose mind can be warped by a religious fanatic. While she suffers, she must also support her daughter’s quest for the prize and that’s where Binoche’s caring allure takes over.
Max Minghella is not only the son of the great Anthony Minghella, but he can also act. His portrayal of a troubled child is convincing and his pain seems so genuine. The trouble is, all that great acting can’t make up for the fact that the story is too subtle, unless you’re interested in deciphering the storyline.