Words are mystical, magical, and wholly material in Bee Season. Though the point of departure is a six grader’s newfound brilliance in spelling bees, the workings of words here take turns that are both grander and more mundane than Eliza’s (Flora Cross) trophies and accolades. As she discovers the ways that words mediate and translate the unfathomable and deeply spiritual nature of daily life and family relations, young Eliza also comes to forgive those who don’t see, who can’t understand matter how much they might desire it.
Based on Maya Goldberg’s 2000 novel, the new film by Scott McGehee and David Siegel focuses on the Naumanns, a well-meaning, intellectual family whose dysfunctions provide a ground for exploring the relationship between language and experience, or, put another way, the dire consequences of literalizing desire. That the film can’t get at this problem without also literalizing characters’ yearnings and imaginings both tangles up theme and plot in ways that are sometimes clunkier than they are poignant or shrewd.
Eliza first shows her gift for spelling as if it is indeed a gift, during a classroom contest. She closes her eyes and appears to feel or even see the words in concrete forms. Throughout the film, you’re invited to see with her—letters appear in air, rush around and reform so that they’re in proper order, an “origami” bird helps her to spell the word, or plants sprout from her shoulders as she spells “cotyledon.” Her serial wins at these contests means she is traveling beyond local venues to regional, state (California), and eventually, a national bee.
Eliza is coached and supported in her victories by her suddenly attentive father, a Kabbalist professor named Saul (Richard Gere). He convinces himself that her special affinity for letters and words means she might become a mystic, “someone who can really connect to God,” as he puts it (and as he has himself tried to be). “Permute the word ‘earth,’” he instructs. “Feel [the letters] as if there’s an additional spirit within you, but go slowly, as the path is dangerous and must be traveled with caution.” The child gazes at the page before her, the letters dancing as she “feels” what her father tells her and the film making explicit what she sees. The tone turns slightly skewed: the literal representation of dad’s dream of “connecting” seems almost comedic, in a dark and slightly scary way.
Saul’s obsessive interest in Eliza (or really, his own success, by proxy) leads him to spend less time with her brother Aaron (Max Minghella), with whom he used to play string duets. Feeling neglected, Aaron starts looking elsewhere for “meaning,” outside temple and certainly, outside his family. Again, the movie’s effort to make visual this transition and struggle is clever but also heavy-handed: as Aaron begins to think about meditating, he meets cute with Hari Krishna devotee Chali (Kate Bosworth, of all people). She sees Aaron’s sadness and the how-to religious book in his lap. “Something’s missing,” she notes oh so sagely, “From your life.” Before you know it, Aaron’s sneaking out of the house or lying about his whereabouts so he can pray at the house where Chali and the rest of her orange-robed colleagues drink tea and burn incense. Much like the literal letters dancing around Eliza on screen, the fact that Aaron’s drawn to this particular exploration by sunshiney Bosworth makes the plot seem less sincere than arch.
Most tragic, least fathomable, and emphatically most literal is the search conducted by Eliza’s mom Juliette Binoche), long ago traumatized by her parents’ deaths in a car accident. She converted to Judaism when she married, and as she too feels neglected by Saul, she falls increasingly into a form of literalization that has, apparently, plagued her for years. Her visions (nightmares, memories?) reveal the fragmented way by which she sees the world, what the camera shows through the kaleidoscope she gives Eliza. Slowly, she’s coming undone, unwatched by her husband and frightening her children.
Come to find out that Miriam’s been listening to Saul’s class lectures very carefully, in particular his speech about gathering together exploded “shards” of light being the most important task for a believer. In her case, the attempt to make literal what Saul calls a metaphor is devastating, and she is increasingly unable to make him see what she sees. Instead, she seeks out “shards” in material form, light-catching objects that she steals from neighboring houses, collecting them into a storage unit where the light seems almost “captured,” or at least refracted in brilliant, complex, and overwhelmingly physical ways. The space emulates the connection Saul describes, but also makes the lack of connection seem almost unbearably acute. That Saul has no concept of how to speak with her, much less share with her, only underlines what seems to be the film’s point—everyone in his family seeks to please and fulfill him, and he’s unable to see any of them clearly.
Eliza’s efforts to accommodate her father’s needs are rendered in brief close-ups of her thoughtful face, as well as CGI-ed mystical signs. Her generosity, the film suggests, is pure, because she is so young and open. (She’s also gracefully acted by young Flora Cross; Gere’s performance, by contrast, seems only a slight variation of his part in Unfaithful, that is, not too stretched out.) Though he means to teach Eliza, Saul learns his spiritual lesson, less of his own accord than by his family’s disparate, apparently implacable energies.
Suffused with loss and longing, Bee Season is often, in single scenes, delicate and moving. This makes its lapses into inelegance almost more intriguing, though, as they seem so unlike the brief close-ups of Eliza’s shallow breaths and closed eyes. Alternately lyrical and frustrating, the movie depends too much on contrivances, stereotypes, and very slow-on-the-uptake parents and partners. All of which leaves you feeling a step ahead of the narrative, not an ideal position when contemplating spiritual “truths.”