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RELEASED: 2005, Cert. 12
RUNNING TIME: Approx. 105 mins
DIRECTORS: Scott McGehee & David Siegel
PRODUCERS: Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa
SCREENPLAY: Naomi Foner
MUSIC: Peter Nashel
Richard Gere as Saul
Flora Cross as Eliza
Juliette Binoche as Miriam
Max Minghella as Aaron
FILM ONLY REVIEW
Saul is deeply hooked into the mystic aspects of the Jewish faith and his teenage son Aaron feels spiritually empty. Miriam, Saul's wife, is living on her nerves and appears to be depressed, her mind constantly being tortured by flashback memories of when her parents were killed in a car crash. Little Eliza is brilliant at spelling, and Saul pushes her forward into winning Spelling Bees once he finds out that is her forte.
Although Aaron has a good relationship with his little sister Eliza, he feels pushed to the edge of the family as Saul almost totally focuses his attention on drawing out the little girl's talent. Miriam watches on, concerned, but appears unable to do anything about what is becoming an increasingly imbalanced lifestyle within the family.
Early on in the film, it is quite apparent that Saul is more interested in his children's talents (Aaron studies music, capably playing a variety of instruments) from the point of view of the limelight falling onto him as a father, as opposed to merely wanting his offspring to be happy and follow their own chosen paths.
The film takes on a more mystical quality, when it becomes apparent that Eliza 'sees' the right spellings for the words she is given in the Spelling Bee contests, through closing her eyes and focusing on internal illusions which seem to magically present her with the correct letters in the correct order.
When Aaron meets a girl who introduces him to a Hare Krishna commune, things get very difficult between him and Saul, his disapproving father.
Meanwhile, Miriam's state of mind rapidly deteriorates.
I somewhat whimsically chose to watch Bee Season because of it being about spelling, as that was my own very best subject at primary school. I was anticipating it perhaps being a fairly light-hearted film, maybe even a comedy, but I couldn't have been more wrong.
The acting is very good throughout by all of the main characters...I'd even go as far as to say faultless, and the screenplay is well-written, but other aspects of the film didn't hit home for me hardly at all.
I found the music to be rather wishy-washy, it mainly being a light orchestral score which is very typical of what usually accompanies mawkish, slush-bucket type productions. However, Bee Season isn't really that kind of film. OK, it is about a family in crisis and the mis-handling of a little girl's talent, but it isn't presented in a sentimental fashion, which for me I suppose is a bonus.
I do feel that the mystical elements were both poorly handled (from the aspect of special effects) and unnecessary, they injecting a lack of realism into a film which really needs to keep both its feet on terra firma in order to be of consistent interest to the viewer. Other parts of Bee Season I found to be bitty, lacking proper follow-through, and although the character development is reasonably strong, the storyline just plunges straight into this section of a family's life, with no preamble or build-up, so all we get to see of the characters is how they are in the 'now', not being shown what led up to anything or whether once they did relate to each another more effectively.
It struck me how difficult this family seems to find the showing and expressing of affection towards one another. There are a couple of scenes where a spark of humanity glimmers through when the chips are close to the ground, but overall I couldn't pick up on any particular sense of cohesiveness between the family members. Maybe the storyline is created that way deliberately, but it isn't easy to watch, as this almost emotionally 'dead' family comes across as tedious and characterless, adding to the boredom factor already present in huge chunks of the film, to the point where I found the whole thing quite depressing, but not in an interesting or a 'grabbing' way.
On a lighter note for a moment, I was interested to observe how closely the ageing Richard Gere resembles the late, great Irish comedian Dave Allen!
In summary, I did find Bee Season quite dull as it limped along without sparkle or anything which particularly drew me into the storyline. The best part definitely is the acting, but a cast like this shines much better playing other roles in other productions. It is a shame because the actual concept of the storyline is quite good, but in this instance I feel it to have been mis-handled to the point where I found myself yawning more than is acceptable as I struggled to give the film my full attention. I have seen other heavy-duty dramas of this nature that I've been totally engrossed in and thoroughly enjoyed, so it definitely isn't the seriousness of Bee Season which is problematic for me. It just didn't hit my spot.
At the time of writing, Bee Season can be purchased from Amazon as follows:-
New: from £1.24 to £27.57
Used: from 48p to £4.50
Some items on Amazon are available for free delivery within the UK, but where this doesn't apply, a £1.26 charge should be added to the above figures.
Thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) is winning spelling bees. Her father Saul (Richard Gere) is immersed in the study of Jewish mysticism. Her brother Aaron (Max Minghella) is looking for personal spiritualism. And her mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) is losing it. This is the family of the movie Bee Season, which has nothing to do with the insects that make honey, but there's a whole lot of stinging going on here.
The film centres on Eliza and begins with her not wanting her family to know that she's winning these spelling contests. Through her eyes, we see immediately that there is a difficult dynamic going on in the family. To begin with, her big brother seems inordinately nice to her but thankfully, as the film progresses we do get a glimpse of more realistic sibling relationship, especially as he retreats. Her mother at first seems terribly perfect, except that she doesn't look Jewish. Thankfully, they explain this away early on, by mentioning that she converted. And then there's Saul's overly academic attitude to his children which suggests more than just a parent wanting his children to succeed in school. Why then, would Eliza hide her achievements from him? Certainly that would get her the attention she's obviously seeking. But no, there is nothing obvious in how these characters act or react, which has its pluses and minuses.
Of course, since Eliza's only 11, we know she'll have to confess when she needs to travel for the next level's competition. Her hiding this from her family gives the audience a sense that there is underlying tension in the dynamic that we cannot initially see on screen. As the movie progresses Eliza's achievements turn from being secret to the core focus of the family, which is juxtaposed to the blossoming of the family rifts. In this, we are set up for an emotional game of 'hide and seek' that all four of them are playing.
Eliza's talents take on a magical quality, which isn't lost on her Religious Studies Professor father. As Saul becomes more involved in Eliza's contests, he also starts tapping into her spiritual side, much to the detriment of his relationship with his wife and son. The magical quality of Eliza's abilities parallels both Aaron's search for meaning in his life, as well as what Miriam's compulsively hiding from everyone. What's more, we feel Saul knows about Miriam's secret, and at one point, feel that instead of dealing with it, he almost tries to replace Miriam with Eliza - thankfully without any sexual connotation. Unfortunately, the magical mystical parts remove this movie from simply being a psychological study of a family in crisis, and into the realm of the slightly unbelievable. Mixing this with such a realistic story, keeps us from believing that this family could actually exist. This will probably bother most viewers, especially those who prefer fantasy films to be fully fantastical, and reality dramas to be totally realistic. For me, the jury is still out.
Some reviewers noted the slow pace here, which directors McGhee and Siegel used. This didn't bother me, and I felt comfortable with the direction here, which probably overcame some pitfalls that this film could have fallen into. For instance, the addition of animation in certain scenes gives a daydream-like quality that fits perfectly into the story. Also, we're never pushed into anything; rather feel like welcome observers who may draw our own conclusions, showing a firm but subtle direction touch here. I'm not totally sure that they didn't overdo the darkness of this story, however, nor am I sure that some of the mystical sections weren't a touch too strange for my taste.
But I have to say that overall, I liked this film, as brooding and weird as it may be. Accepting Binoche in this part was less of a leap of faith than it could have been, since she does attract parts that include unusual twists on reality, such as her portrayal of Vianne in Chocolat. Accepting Richard Gere as a Jew was a touch more difficult, even with the excellent language coach they gave him and the rest of the cast. While he gave a good performance, I heard the voice of Simon Cowell saying 'a good vocal but a totally forgettable performance'. Gere doesn't bring anything to this part but Gere, except that he's learned to speak Hebrew correctly. Max Minghella's portrayal of Aaron was very believable, and I would never have guessed his British background from this performance. By the way, there's a small part of Chali played by the very lovely Kate Bosworth which was nicely done.
The real star of this film was Eliza and Flora Cross' portrayal of her. For a first-time outing, this Paris born actress has proven she is certainly going places. She never once sounds French, has a truly natural ability on screen and we feel her emotions rather than just see or hear them. If for nothing else than to see Flora's film debut, I'd recommend you see this film.
Which begs the question: should you see this film? Personally, I'd say yes with some reservations. The script isn't perfect but I understand that the book it was adapted from isn't perfect either. The story is compelling for the most part and could be analysed on many different levels, and never takes the easy way out. The direction is on the slow side, but not unreasonably so. Most of the acting is very good, but Flora Cross is outstanding. I'd say that if you add all this up, the pros do outweigh the cons for this film so I'll give this movie four out of five stars and recommend it, although not overly highly.
Thanks for reading!
Davida Chazan © May, 2007
The official site for this film can be found at http://foxsearchlight.com/beeseason/
The DVD is available on Amazon for rent or purchase for £4.97, or through their marketplace from £3.00! That high starting price says something, doesn't it?
Based on the bestselling novel by Myla Goldberg, 'Bee Season' follows a family of seekers, each of whom is looking to God, transcendence, or love, in their search for something greater than themselves. Eleven-year-old Eliza Nauman (Flora Cross in a promising debut) is on her way to becoming the national spelling bee champion, much to the delight of her heretofore somewhat dismissive father, Saul (Richard Gere). A professor of religion who wrote his thesis on Jewish mysticism, Saul has previously shown more interest in Eliza's older brother, Aaron (Max Minghella), a serious-minded young scholar and cello player. In what soon becomes clear is his customary manner, Saul takes control of Eliza's spelling career, and focuses on her to the exclusion of the rest of his family. Meanwhile, his wife, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), is quietly facing a spiritual crisis, and unbeknownst to her family is engaging in petty thievery in her quest for beauty and salvation. Saul is unwilling to admit that anything is wrong-and thus out of his control-while the unmoored Aaron turns to the beatific Chali (Kate Bosworth), a hare Krishna, for spiritual sustenance and comfort. As Saul attempts to tap Eliza's uncanny knack with words and create a pipeline to God according to the tenets of an ancient Kabbalah scholar, Eliza blames herself for everyone's troubles. As the final competition draws nigh and the family disintegrates, however, it might just be that Eliza is the only one who can save them.