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Published: Wednesday, 11/23/2005

Movie review: Bee Season ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Dreading Thanksgiving?

The family is nuts, you say?

Well, look at it like this:

You could be a member of the Naumann clan, the troubled, upper-middle class family beating at the cold heart of Bee Season. Talk about awkward meals.

It is an adaptation (by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, the mother of Maggie and Jake) of a dense and somewhat less frosty best-selling novel by Myla Goldberg - and truly, these people are lunatics. How would you like Richard Gere making your eggs, and going on about Kabbalah?

Arguably, they are the most obtuse movie family in the long history of obtuse movie families. We know very little of who they are, why they are, and what put them in this state of detachment.

This is one of those families that always seem (in movies, anyway) to be led by a professorial father whose intellectual achievements leave a blind spot where feelings for his wife and kids should be. "You talk and talk and talk," an annoyed Miriam (the distant mother) tells Saul (the distant father) at one point. "But they are just empty words."

Yes, and they sound so good.

Words, or rather the letters in the words, have indeed become a kind of specialty of their 11-year-old daughter, Eliza (Flora Cross, making a great feature debut), and Saul (Gere), a Berkeley religion studies professor, sees it as somethingmore than that. His specialty is

Judaism, and in particular, the mystical offshoot called Kabbalah. At the local spelling bee, Eliza spells words like "saline" and "dandelion" with her eyes closed, her face framed in the beatific light like a California Joan of Arc. Her eyelids flutter as if behind them messages were being decoded.

And perhaps they are.

In a leap most pictures would shy from, aside from a few major tweaks of character and location, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (who made the less abstract Deep End, with Tilda Swinton) give Goldberg's spiritually restless novel a faithful adaptation - which means Saul truly begins to believe that for his daughter, Kabbalah has become a reality.

He teaches it as theory, but here, he thinks, it is her second nature. Which also means, her ability to summon correct letters suggests a direct line to the ear of God. Saul begins to coach her, taking her from regional bees to the nationals in Washington. And as you might guess, this is the kind of plot that plays better on a page.

True, and yet Bee Season, a film of admirable, earnest convictions and some awkward gimmicks, manages OK. The film is about how Eliza's ability to spell with uncanny power upsets the balance in the family: as Saul and Eliza buckle down and study, the neglected son Aaron (Max Minghella, son of director Anthony Minghella) calculates a way to enrage his dad: He finds a Hare Krishna temple, where his eyes are opened beyond his own family's Judaism by a beaming shiksa goddess, played by the lovely Kate Bosworth. Go figure.

Meanwhile, Saul's wife, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), reacts to her daughter's success by retreating into her own odd behavior: She slips into strangers' homes and steals shiny, reflecting doodads.

And there's also a fifth family member of sorts: Tikkun olam, a Jewish concept meaning the healing or repairing of the world. It's the overlying idea that drives the picture, and the needs of the characters - that things have shattered and it is our responsibility to piece the shards back together. For Eliza, this means assembling letters into words. For her mother, it's much stranger.

At this point, it's safe to say you may find the idea of an 11-year-old whose divine mission is winning spelling bees, um, quite mystical in itself. I sympathize.

But there are bigger problems: Gere, such a normally swaggering actor, is not easily believed as a guy devoted to complicated thought - even if the guy is, in real life, a famously committed Buddhist. And the filmmakers have this unfortunate thing with portraying thoughts in flaky, dreamlike imagery (letters floating, kaleidoscopes twisting) while leaving emotions opaque.

What comes across, why the picture works at all, is because of what and who Flora Cross suggests with that solemn, inward-looking gaze. Spirituality in American films tends to get relegated to the epic, the bloody, and the evangelical.

We don't trust (or perhaps it's just too hard to convey) the small acts of belief and conviction that lie in people who don't proselytize. In a final act of refusal and free will, Eliza finds the deepest faith is in herself, completely removed from theology. That Fox made a movie about that is a miracle.



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