When I watched previews of Bee Season, I was eager to see what looked to be an intriguing family-drama version of 2003's documentary hit Spellbound. A flick that explores not just the study habits of champion spellers, but also the ripple-effect family dynamics when one young member excels in such an intellectual arena and on a national level. Well, after sitting through the real Bee Season, I'd still like to see that movie. Because Spellbound this wasn't—unless you mean the more traditional, spiritualistic meaning of the word. In other words, how do you spell misleading?

Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) helps his daughter Eliza study for the spelling bee

Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) helps his daughter Eliza study for the spelling bee

Actually, the film (based loosely on the best-selling novel of the same name by Myla Goldberg) starts somewhat as expected. There's a young California family busy with cello practice, dad's job as a prof, mom's job as a scientist, and the youngest daughter, Eliza (Flora Cross), taking it all in with her intriguing slate-blue eyes. Eliza appears to be the only non-overachiever in the bunch, until she wins a spelling bee at her school—aided by her mysterious ability to literally picture the letters of each word. The reticent girl is so unused to the spotlight that she slips the letter alerting her parents to her achievement under the study door of her father, Saul (Richard Gere), a busy and important man. He misses it in the academic bustle of papers and books, and instead brother Aaron (Max Minghella) takes Eliza to the district spelling bee, where she wins again. Aaron shares her good fortune with the family, and suddenly there's a new star in town. No longer are Aaron and Dad practicing stringed instruments in his study; now it's Eliza being invited into this holy of holies to learn about the magic of words.

Eliza and her mom (Juliette Binoche) share a tender moment

Eliza and her mom (Juliette Binoche) share a tender moment

It's here that Eliza's dad begins disbursing his beliefs that "words and letters hold all the secrets of the universe" and "God is in the words, God is the words." It seems that he's melded his wordie, Jewish, and Kabbalah beliefs into one big theology of words, and he's thrilled to have such a rapt and proficient student. But the more Eliza wins, the more Saul parades her around campus to his coworkers, and the more he fills her mind with such "knowledge" as "letters are the expression of primal energy," the messier things get. Aaron gets resentful that Dad's forgotten all about him, and begins an aggressive spiritual journey away from the family roots. Mom, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), a Catholic who converted to Judaism when she married Saul, begins a few mysterious wanderings of her own late at night in her pjs. The more puffed with pride over Eliza's accomplishments Dad gets, the more the family comes apart at the seams.

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Big brother Aaron (Max Minghella) is always a good shoulder to lean on

Big brother Aaron (Max Minghella) is always a good shoulder to lean on

It's the spiritual path this movie journeys down that gets the most confusing—and disturbing. It's one thing to haul out the two-ton family dictionary to drill your daughter on multi-syllabic words, it's another thing altogether to tell her to "open your mind to all the words in the universe that begin with E" in a meditating-like trance. He believes there's a high level of communing with God that can be achieved by cleansing the heart and soul, permuting key words such as "light" and "spirit," and reaching beyond yourself—but only certain gifted ones can reach this higher plane. He's tried it unsuccessfully, but thinks Eliza, with her magical aptitude for words, could be the one to achieve it. But, he explains that the path to this higher spiritual plane—which invites an additional spirit and may cause physical trembling—is dangerous and therefore to be traveled slowly.

As a Christian listening to this, and watching the son get deeper entrenched in the dancing and trancing ways of Hare Krishna-ism, I was reminded of how wonderful it is that we have direct access to God through prayer. That God isn't in the words, he is the Word. That though our Christian beliefs may certainly take us outside our comfort zone at times, it's never dangerous. That God chose to speak to us through the Word plainly and clearly. That we don't have to try to channel the light, but we get to serve and reflect the Light of the World. And it's a light that illuminates instead of spreading odd kaleidoscopic images as we see throughout the film—mysterious, unclear, and vague.

She can spell, but can she save her family?

She can spell, but can she save her family?

There's a scene toward the end of the film when Eliza's on her way to another bee, her mom has gone off the deep end, and her brother Aaron calls his dad to say he's joined the Hare Krishnas and is never coming home. Saul replies, "I can't take this right now." I wanted to mutter an "amen." Why did the scriptwriters think we in the audience could take any more heavy, unexplored plot lines either? Though the acting is great and the special effects of Eliza's mystical letter-visualizing are a delight to watch, the film suffers from too much family baggage.

Early in the film Saul explains the Jewish concept of tikkun olam: that the big bang of creation shattered God's divine light into a million little shards, and it's our responsibility to reassemble and fix what's broken. Similarly, this movie feels like lots of shards—Eliza's magical word abilities, Saul's funky spiritualism, Aaron's religious meanderings, Miriam's haunting past and troubled present—that have yet to be gathered and crafted into a whole piece. Words and letters may hold all the secrets of the universe, as Saul asserts, but 104 minutes wasn't enough to hold and resolve all the secrets and mysteries of Bee Season.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. The film shows the profound effect an earthly father has on a child's spiritual beliefs. How did your earthly father affect your faith? If you have kids, how are you affecting theirs?

  2. In what ways are Saul's spiritual beliefs accurate? In what ways is he deceived?

  3. Why do you think Aaron began questioning his faith? What do you think he found in Hare Krishna beliefs that he felt he was lacking?

  4. Think about the many inclusions of the color red throughout the movie. What do you think they were trying to communicate with this theme?

  5. Trace the theme of light throughout the movie. How does light affect or interact with each family member? What do you think the filmmakers are trying to communicate about light?

  6. What did you think of the ending? Why do you think Eliza does what she does in the final spelling bee?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Though the main character is a sixth grader, you probably wouldn't want to take children that young to Bee Season. The religious themes are confusing enough for adults, let alone for impressionable kids. And do you really want them to see a meditating and convulsing sixth-grader and a dancing and chanting high schooler? There's also a bit of bad language and a non-nudity sex scene between a married couple.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 11/17/05

Another novel buzzing to the big screen this week, Myla Goldberg's Bee Season is drawing attention for the way it illustrates ideas central to Jewish mysticism.

This is the story of a religion professor (Richard Gere) whose wife (Juliette Binoche), formerly a French Catholic, converted to Judaism when she married him. Together, they must contend with personal crises and unexpected developments, such as their spelling-bee-champion daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) who has what seems to be a supernatural gift for spelling. Eliza's triumphs end up teaching each family member something, including Aaron (Max Minghella), Eliza's brother.

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"The idea that words and language can serve as conduits to the divine is shared by many religions," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service), "finding expression not only in Jewish mysticism, but in Buddhist chants and the Christian tradition of 'lectio divina.' Early on, Saul tells Eliza that 'God is in the words, God is the words,' echoing the Gospel of John: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' Unfortunately, the movie reduces Saul's pursuit of transcendence to a spiritual study aid—a mystical Hebrew version of Hooked on Phonics. Several of the other story lines, including Miriam's meltdown, remain unresolved. … Ultimately, though intelligent and finely acted, Bee Season doesn't have much of a dramatic sting."

Mainstream critics are divided in their opinions—some find it emotionally affecting, others complain that they weren't moved at all.

Our Rating
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Average Rating
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Directed By
Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Run Time
1 hour 44 minutes
Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross
Theatre Release
November 23, 2005
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