28 November 2005 | noralee
Unusual In Visually Conveying a Spirtual, Intellectual Family Drama
"Bee Season" is much better than the trailer foretold and almost surmounts a central miscasting to re-interpret the strongest aspects of Myla Goldberg's novel, which my Fiction Book Club had thoroughly enjoyed discussing.
The film blends a family drama with two popular interests, the Kabbalah and spelling bees. Unfortunately, the gimmicky celebrity populism of the former is accentuated with the wincible casting of Richard Gere as the father who is supposed to be a Talmudic scholar with a dissertation on Jewish mysticism.
When he was shown giving a simplistic lecture at multicultural UC Berkeley on the theme of tikkun olam (repairing the world) that is echoed throughout the film, I felt the only way I could accept him in the role at all would be to assume he was a gentile intro to comparative religion teacher, even though he has lines denigrating Jews who chant Hebrew in synagogue without understanding the language and about inspiring his French Catholic wife to convert. He does put across well how the patriarch bullies the family emotionally and controls them with food, rigid standards and attention, like a more subtle Great Santini, but he lacks the pale intensity of the obsessed and just seems another NPR-listening, Bach-duet playing intellectual.
Until the involving climax, though, there are ironically very little Hebrew numbers as letters to guide the secrets of the universe in the movie when the dad takes his spelling wunderkind daughter under his wing to teach her the power of language, but it does lead to the most powerful scenes in the film of letting us see what's going on inside her head. Flora Cross in her debut is the anti-Dakota Fanning in absolutely convincing us that she is in thrall to a supernatural gift and that her kabbalistic studies, which are usually forbidden to young people for their psychological dangers, are opening her up to hidden reservoirs of perception. It is completely exceptional that special effects can be so extraordinary and important to an intellectual family story, but they are not only enchanting but demonstrative. Cross naturally communicates how she intuitively is in touch with a force that her father can only enthusiastically theorize and not quite capture himself.
The sharp editing is superb at clarifying cross-currents from the book, and perhaps making it much easier, perhaps a bit too simplistically, to see how each member of the family is seeking the face of God in their own way. The son, dark heart throb in the budding Max Minghella, is, as usual, seduced by a bland blonde shiksa, Kate Bosworth, though with an unusual rebellious religious twist that here seems natural to the Berkeley environment. But then his Jewish religious education seemed pretty random.
The editing and the special effects also marvelously contrast the paternal theme with the other fractured visual theme of the kaleidescope that the mother favors. While Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal's adaptation (and it's nice to see Maggie and Jake's mom's work again) makes the details of the mom's increasingly disturbed activities more incomprehensible than in the book, Juliette Binoche superbly adds a fragility and depth to the role beyond the novel and makes her heartbreakingly sympathetic.
The conclusion is more emotional, if more pat, than in the book, though some interpretation is still possible.
In making the intellectual visible, the film also uses library settings as an inner sanctum very warmly.
Nice to hear the band Ivy on the soundtrack and over the credits.