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click to enlarge Eliza (Flora Cross) aces another word in Bee - Season.
  • Eliza (Flora Cross) aces another word in Bee Season.

Bee Season (PG-13)
Kimball's Twin Peak

Those who read and loved Myla Goldberg's luminous novel Bee Season either eagerly anticipated or dreaded the film adaptation. Goldberg's task was to juggle the inner and outer lives of all four members of the family Naumann, an educated, well-to-do Jewish clan in California whose youngest member, 11-year-old Eliza, has discovered she's a spelling prodigy.

The movie's task is to take the book's complicated material -- ranging from Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah to kleptomania and depression -- and turn it into a film that breathes, looks good and tells a compelling story in less than two hours.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, working with a script by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, succeed in making Bee Season look good and bring it in at 104 minutes. But the complexities of the plot and the necessities of character development elude their grasp just enough to turn Bee Season into a movie that's better than standard by virtue of its ambition, but puzzling and less than satisfying in its overall effect.

Richard Gere is antsy and frenetic as Saul, a professor of religion whose quest for perfection translates to overly controlling behavior at home with his troubled wife, Miriam, and two ideal children, Aaron and Eliza. Juliette Binoche is quiet and delicate as Miriam, a French Catholic who converted to Judaism after marrying Saul, and young Max Minghella gives a refreshing performance as a teenage boy eager to please his father but uncertain how to capture his attention.

Starring as Eliza is charming newcomer Flora Cross, who mesmerizes viewers with her large, soulful brown eyes and a perfect dimple in the middle of her chin. Cross's Eliza is solid and stoic, always observing and silently closing her quaking eyelids when asked to spell a word that should be far beyond her comprehension.

When Saul discovers his daughter's gift, he shifts into parental high gear, confusing his search for communion with God with his ambition as a father, believing that Eliza is capable of a transcendent religious experience and plying her with books on the Jewish mystics and his own Ph.D. thesis. At the same time, he neglects both Aaron and Miriam, failing to see the coming unraveling of the fragile family web.

Viewers will want to smack Gere for his self-satisfaction and unyielding cheerfulness in the movie's first half. (I guess that means he did a good job.) Still, he's less than convincing as a scholar of world religions, despite his popular status as a practicing Buddhist who personally knows the Dalai Lama. The guy is just too perfect and doesn't register as a searcher.

Special effects imagery -- letters floating out of Eliza's head and transforming to symbols, prismatic images emerging from a kaleidoscope, shattered glass -- quickly become the film's trademark and ultimately are used to distraction. They are supposed to lasso and contain the themes of seeing the light, and making order of chaos, but only occasionally are effective.

Beyond the spirituality question, Bee Season explores how much of children's lives are lived for their parents and siblings, and, conversely, the degree to which parents identify their success as adults based on the accomplishments of their children. Had the filmmakers chosen to illuminate this strand rather than immersing the film in the quest for mystic contact, it might have been more comprehensible. As it is, we're left high and dry, with no particular spiritual insights, at the end.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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