Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel made their feature in 1993 with "Suture" and followed this up with the 2001 critical darling "The Deep End." Their latest film, "Bee Season", may have a warmer heart but is not devoid of the nuances of their previous films. While "Suture" was stylistically intriguing and "The Deep End" was anchored by Tilda Swinton's performance, "Bee Season" misses its mark, feeling much too academic in its process, fleetingly exploring the spiritual and emotional unrest that upsets the lives of the main characters.
In this adaptation of Myla Goldberg's novel of the same name, 11 year old Eliza Nauman (Flora Cross) appears to be as ordinary as any of the kids on the grade school playground. Saul, her father (Richard Gere), is a popular university professor, who teaches theology and is a follower of the Kabbalah. Saul gives warm attention to his son, Flora's brother, Aaron (Max Minghella), a gifted musician and all around good kid. Flora's mother, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), seems overly occupied by her career but she comes across as a good mother. The family has its center, a happiness stemming from somewhere; most likely Saul's obsessive desire for all of them to be happy.
Early in the film, Eliza eagerly watches her father and brother as they enter Saul's home office to play music together. This is something of a symbolic affirmation of academic families; where intelligence seems to dominate, as analysis and criticism are never far behind. All of this is for the greater good, of course, because here emotions are paltry substances that are taken for granted.
In the films first sequence, Eliza wins the school spelling bee and hopes to have her father accompany her to the district championship but instead must go with her brother, who she has a very supportive relationship with. Unexpectedly, she wins district and is no longer just an ordinary kid on the playground, but in Saul's eyes she is his successful progeny. Her win at district includes an invite to the national competition, and ushers her father into exploring the world of Jewish mysticism with her. Saul takes a much more academic approach to Judaism that is anything but mystical. What slowly becomes known to those around Eliza is that she is indeed a mystic, which is, sadly, an under used facet of the film. Since the story primarily revolves around Eliza and the way in which the Kabbalah is not mere study but a reality. The film espouses the idea that the Kabbalah believes that words not only reflect reality, but in a sense create it. Through a mystical/spiritual understanding of words one can reach the ear of God.
However, Eliza's win has negative effects on the family dynamic, a dynamic that is never fully realized despite forcing the idea that long held secrets are finally coming to light. The weakness in the depiction of the family woes, such as Aaron's rebellion against his father by joining a group of Hare Krishnas (which feels like it's there because that's what kids his age are supposed to do), is contrasted by the strength of Eliza's new found divination. This mystical element is depicted in an interesting manner that works quite well for the film but is never explored as fully as one might be led to believe.
Overall, the narrative doesn't lack focus but its focus is so subtle and concentrated inward that it never quite reveals enough to enthrall the audience, which leaves us with our own superficial assumptions about the story and the characters. Case in point, the way in which Miriam's back story so conveniently comes back to haunt her during her daughter's rite of passage. The severity of Miriam's circumstance never seems to be triggered by anything, other than it needs to happen to cause conflict. It doesn't feel organic to the story. Binoche gives a strong performance despite this, though one wonders if Miriam's catholic upbringing might have been brought into question, it could have been used as a much more compelling point of conflict for her character as opposed to the existing story line with her "fractured" persona.
The film is presented in both a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a 1.33:1 full screen transfer. The transfer is smooth and crisp and does wonderful justice to the lush visuals by cinematographer Giles Nuttgen. Contrast is great and there's nothing that takes away from the film's look. To say the least, the lush images are presented in a beautifully luminous fashion.
Being a mostly dialogue driven film, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack presents a clean mix, which is accented by the occasional surround sound effect, mostly during Eliza's heightened sense of thought; her spelling trances, if you will. English, French and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The film has a fair amount of extras, particularly in the commentary department. Directors McGehee and Siegel are on hand for a fairly informative commentary, giving behind the scenes tidbits on the making of the film. Of particular interest is how they discuss their intended meaning for particular moments in the film, that seem to work only after they explain a bit more about what they hope to convey.
On hand for another commentary are producer Albert Berger and screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, who look into the book to film adaptation and the particular narrative beats of the films.
Also included are six deleted scenes, with optional commentary by McGehee and Siegel, which can be played separately or together and run for over six minutes. Rounding out the extras is a just over five minute long featurette on the making of the film.
"Bee Season" contains some very interesting ideas, moments and performances that never coalesce into a great film. The film doesn't push itself enough, or dig deep enough to be as effective as it wants to be. The study/revelation of the Kabbalah, which is an interesting and fascinating aspect of the film, is never explored as much as it should be. The filmmakers clearly don't want to ‘beat the audience over the head' with the developing narrative but a stronger guiding hand would have helped immensely. Also of note is Flora Cross, who provides Eliza with a quiet confidence, a subtle spirituality evoked by her nuanced portrayal. She is truly the center of this film.