Humanity can repair itself. We can piece together the shards of glass that comprise the universe in such a way that all that is broken becomes whole.
This basic concept of Kabbalah is, nonetheless, far from basic for the vast majority of humanity. We create walls and obstacles and conflicts and wars and celebrate our victimization by wearing our shards as war medals instead of piecing them together, assembling them back into wholeness.
"Bee Season," a film directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel ("Deep End" and "Suture"), is a film about these shards of life experience and our often desperate attempts to collect them, assemble them, make sense of them or simply live with them without disruption.
"Bee Season" is based upon a novel by Myla Goldberg, and centers around 11-year-old Eliza Naumann, a child who has merely existed in a family too distracted by its own agenda to notice her. The role of Eliza was originally designated for Dakota Fanning, however, Fanning was dropped in favor of newcomer Flora Cross, an 11-year-old with a strong likeness to her screen mother Mirian, played by Juliette Binoche. While this is the sort of role that Fanning blossoms in, the discovery of Cross is a wondrous one. Cross offers a screen presence similar to early Jena Malone, where she can emote powerfully in her silence with a look, a glance, an uttering. It's a remarkable performance combining the youthful innocence of an 11-year-old who is wise beyond her years yet still at the age where she doesn't understand even the basics of human relationships, family dynamics or, quite simply, the way life works.
Yet, searching is how this family seems to have survived for years. Perhaps it is no surprise that young Eliza, who comes out of hiding when her gift for spelling is revealed when she wins her school spelling bee, is unable to understand the basics of humanity because her family itself has become distracted by the shards of life. She returns home after her win, slips the letter informing her parents under her father's study door (where she's not allowed) then quietly asks her brother to drive her to the city spelling bee on the morning of it.
Suddenly, young Eliza becomes the focus of her father, Saul Naumann, a religious studies professor with a special interest in Kabbalah. As the incredibly intelligent but remarkably clueless father, Richard Gere offers his best performance in years, if not his career. Saul speaks fluently, gently and with great spirituality, and yet even his words appear to be shards that disconnect him from God, his family and, ultimately, himself. As portrayed by Gere, Saul is a man who desperately wants to connect with God and his family, yet he is so wrapped up into his own agenda, thoughts and ideas that he can't see the world around him. His pleadings to his wife in the latter half of the film to "talk to him" are achingly painful because she is speaking so clearly and he is just not hearing her. His scenes with his daughter are tragic in that it becomes clear he is not proud of her...he is proud of the fact that he is her father.
While Saul is distracted by himself, mother Miriam (Binoche) is distracted by her past. She has been living a secret life, which is never fully revealed. In some ways, one could say this lack of revelation makes sense. Yet because her character, as written, is underdeveloped it makes her intense emotional and spiritual journey almost pointless. Binoche acts it beautifully, yet I never really cared about her journeys into different homes, her collecting of shards, her flashbacks, even the obvious references to her loss of parents at a young age. When she finally loses control it lacks the emotional wallop it deserves because we haven't had a chance to bond with her fully. We are aware, perhaps more than any other character, of her desperation to assemble the shards, but it is still challenging to care.
Then, finally, there is Aaron, the older brother who has long been the family's star and the center of attention for his father. Max Minghella's performance is almost perfectly parallel to that of Cross. The scenes between brother and sister are spiritually intertwined in their tone and theme. Where Eliza looks within, Aaron looks externally for his peace. Much like the mother's role, Aaron is underdeveloped, especially as his own spiritual journey takes interesting turns. His scenes with his sister are tender, poignant and indicate that in this family, perhaps, it is the children who are actually spiritual teachers to their biological parents. When Aaron meets the young, beautiful Chali, played by Kate Bosworth, in a local park one day he begins exploring her spiritual community, discovered to be the Hare Krishnas. This revelation would provide the only true moments of emotional disclosure for this family.
The script, by Naomi Foner, is effective in its dialogue, situations and development yet it lacks the humor and depth of the novel by Goldberg. Foner, mother of current indie faves Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, has previously written films such as "Losing Isaiah", "Running on Empty," and "A Dangerous Woman." Here, she succeeds and fails in the same ways as her previous scripts. She doesn't organize the comprehensive material enough to make it completely coherent, doesn't fully develop secondary characters and tries to skim the surface of a comprehensive novel rather than fleshing out the central themes. Where Foner's script shines is in its authenticity for each character. The fact that even the secondary performances shine here is testimony to the authentic, clear dialogue and the cohesive way in which Foner ties this family together.
The directors, who masterfully handled the human and family aspects of the film, are considerably less successful in managing the mystical aspects of the film. In essence, they choose to "dumb down" aspects of Kabbalah almost to the point of presenting it as "pop" religion. Even worse, they resort to camera tricks to project this onscreen instead of trusting their actor's ability to communicate the mysticism. When young Eliza goes into her "zone" while spelling, we see various graphics that seldom appear "mystical," more often leaning towards funny and/or silly. It's a sad choice as Cross's performance more than communicated the impact needed for the scenes. Thus, emotionally satisfying scenes are diluted by the cinematography. This is particularly jarring due to the stellar cinematography throughout the film. It was impossible to not notice the little touches throughout the film. Camera angles, lighting, and other production aspects would shift upon certain words.
"Bee Season" deserved to be a stellar film. The film features a stellar debut performance from young Flora Cross, a career performance from Richard Gere (He should have received an Independent Spirit nomination), and marvelous efforts by Juliette Binoche, Max Minghella and Kate Bosworth in underdeveloped roles. The film is weakened by Naomi Foner's overzealous script, McGehee and Siegel's inability to effectively translate the inherent mysticism effectively to the screen, and cheap camera tricks that dilute the emotionally powerful story.
It is ironic that in a film that so vividly teaches that we can assemble the shards of our lives and create wholeness once again, the directors instead illustrate the challenges in assembling these shards by ultimately falling short in bringing the wholeness of Myla Goldberg's complex novel to life.