- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

“Bee Season” begins with a panoramic flourish, as co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel follow the flight of a huge letter A across the San Francisco Bay Area. Denizens of sted Located inlphia in the source material, a striking but rather pitiless first novel by Myla Goldberg, the Naumann family now reveals its dysfunctional tendencies within an Oakland-Berkeley corridor. There, father Saul (Richard Gere) is a Jewish biblical scholar at the University of California, and mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) peers into a microscope on one occasion to authenticate an unspecified scientific job.

The airborne letter calls our attention to the alphabet, which looms large for their youngest child, a 10-year-old daughter named Eliza (Flora Cross). Her flair for spelling elevates her all of a sudden from family mediocrity to prodigy and celebrity, headed for the state and national finals before her parents are on to the breakout. What might be a proudly diverting and unifying situation for most families proves an insidious catalyst within the Naumann household, where estrangement has been nibbling away at the foundations.

Saul neglects his long-standing favorite, an accomplished teenage son named Aaron (Max Minghella), in order to concentrate on coaching and influencing the late bloomer Eliza, whose absorption in words seems to flatter her father’s devotion to Jewish scholarship and spirituality. Rudely displaced as the chosen one, Aaron begins trolling for consolation in dubious places, notably a Hare Krishna commune that boasts a very dishy enticement in Kate Bosworth.

Mrs. Naumann is nearing the climax of what appears to be a glacial, lifelong nervous breakdown. Traced to a childhood trauma, it culminates in secretive drives and rambles that are meant to keep us guessing until the denouement. Is she adulterer, stalker, shoplifter or merely gadabout fruitcake?

It would be possible to formulate the pretext in a humorously optimistic way, using Eliza as the domestic runt or underdog who brightens all outlooks and prospects by discovering that she excels at something all her own. Miss Goldberg is the sort of novelist inclined to plant trapdoors beneath every family relationship or sign of achievement. She’s very astute at seeing through her characters — and human striving and insecurity in general.

The problem is that springing these traps makes her seem a pretty coldblooded observer. Several reviewers have already pointed out that it was much easier to find common cause with the real kids and families in the documentary “Spellbound” than it is with the fictional Naumanns, pawns of a cleverly omniscient author whose sense of humor can be lethally acute.

The role of Saul Naumann needs a commanding, know-it-all presence that asks too much of Mr. Gere, largely a stranger to paternal roles. Miriam’s emotional crisis might have more to offer Miss Binoche if it weren’t such a sideshow, exploited as a suspense element that proves expediently misleading.

With her poker face and deeply dimpled chin, Flora Cross is an appealing Eliza, although you wonder whether judges would speed her up during spellings that seem very, very slow. The slowness allows the directors to weave pictorial fantasies around Eliza’s imagination when visualizing and savoring words. This conceit derives from the novel, but the movie fondly abuses it, evoking fairyland visions that might be more appropriate to an extended seance among wee creatures who dwell in enchanted surroundings.

**

TITLE: “Bee Season”

RATING: PG-13: Occasional profanity and painful family conflict; fleeting sexual candor.

CREDITS: Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Screenplay by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, based on the novel by Myla Goldberg. Cinematography by Giles Nutgens. Music by Peter Nashel.

RUNNING TIME:100 minutes

WEB SITE:

www.foxsearchlight.

com/beeseason

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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