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Ambitious ‘Bee Season’ loses sting toward finale

Story of strained family dynamics becomes muddled in final scenes

A family afflicted by “too many gods” is the focus of “Bee Season,” an unusually ambitious and well-cast drama based on Myla Goldberg’s best-selling 2000 novel. The movie can’t deal with all the intriguing questions it raises, especially during the muddled final stretch, but it’s a balanced and perceptive examination of a family in crisis.

Miriam, the mother (Juliette Binoche), was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism when she married; now she’s off on her own curious quest, which is largely hidden from her husband Saul (Richard Gere). He’s a Bay Area religious studies professor obsessed with Jewish mystics and sometimes neglectful of his children.

Their sixth-grade daughter, Eliza (Flora Cross), can’t get his undivided attention until she starts winning spelling contests. Once he does spend time with Eliza and introduces her to the secrets of the Kaballah, their precocious son Aaron (Max Minghella) starts drifting away, hesitantly taking communion at one church, then converting to Hinduism when he meets an irresistible Hare Krishna (Kate Bosworth).

While everyone else struggles to connect, Eliza appears to have an instinct for spiritual adventures. Whenever she’s under pressure to come up with an accurate spelling, the special-effects department takes over. Surrounded by ethereal creatures that invariably lead her to produce the correct response, she achieves a kind of nirvana even before her father starts giving her a religious-historical context for what she’s experiencing.

Somehow these episodes manage to avoid hokeyness, partly because they’re carefully supplemented by images from the “real world” (microscopes, kaleidoscopes, chains of jewelry) that can be made to appear just as fantastic. Eliza accepts them as a natural phenomenon, and eventually so does the audience.

This is partly due to a screenplay by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (a 1988 Oscar nominee for her script about another tested family, “Running on Empty”), that gives nearly equal weight to the parents and their kids. Aaron may be going through a delayed adolescent rebellion (his sudden use of “whatever” has a deeply chilling effect), while Saul may be just as selfish as Aaron accuses him of being. Eliza seems strangely self-possessed; Miriam may be beyond help. But we never doubt that they are bound together. 

The family dynamics are similar to another current movie, “The Squid and the Whale,” which is more ruthless about its characters’ feelings and failures yet comes to a similar conclusion. Both movies demonstrate how parents can do harm because they don’t realize how much they’re influencing their children; at the same time, the filmmakers recognize the hunger to be influenced.

“Bee Season” was co-directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who previously collaborated on the Tilda Swinton thriller, “The Deep End,” and the tricky independent film, “Suture,” which also had trouble adding up. All of their work has been distinguished by strong performances and striking visuals. In spite of an ending that refuses to click (was something vital left on the cutting-room floor?), “Bee Season” is their most accessible work to date.