There is a lot of smug mysticism masquerading as universal truth in “Bee Season.” It’s about a family in which each member is having a spiritual crisis of some kind, and instead of resolution, what we get is some weird-so-it-must-be-deep symbolism, a condescending pat on the head, and the sense that we ought to feel really, really enlightened now.
But I’m not enlightened. I feel like I’ve watched a movie so confident it’s being meaningful that it forgot to include any actual meaning.
It sure LOOKS like it ought to be important, though, with the ambiguous story and the wise face of Richard Gere front and center. Gere plays Saul, father of the Naumann family and professor at a Bay Area university. He oversees his classes and his family with the same sagacious paternity, equal parts academic instruction and gentle, guru-like guidance. He treats his teenage son Aaron (Max Minghella) like a buddy, his 11-year-old daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) like a pet, and his bored wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) like a housekeeper.
Saul and Aaron play Bach string duets for fun, even when little Eliza is in bed trying to sleep, even when Miriam could use help with the dishes. Eliza thinks her dad doesn’t care that she has become her school district’s spelling bee champion, but once he learns of it, he ditches Aaron and starts spending all his time with Eliza, helping her practice for the regionals. She’s like a new toy, this fun daughter he’d forgotten he had. Where was she all this time? Living right here in the house with us?! Well, I’ll be.
Eliza seems mildly uncomfortable with all the attention at first, and not without reason: When Saul invites her into his study to practice her spelling, we get the impression she has never set foot in the room before. But soon she warms up to it. What little girl wouldn’t love to have her daddy spend so much time with her? (Flora Cross plays the role with real wisdom, by the way; she seems like one of those “old souls” you hear about.)
Now, the way Saul helps Eliza practice is not the way you or I would. He doesn’t start by reading words and letting her spell them. Instead, he says, “Open your mind to all the words in the universe that contain the letter ‘e.'” That Eliza reacts to this as if it were normal speaks volumes about what life in the Naumann house is like.
Aaron, feeling a little jilted by his father’s sudden focus on Eliza, embarks on a religious quest. The family is Jewish, but Aaron reads a book on Buddhism and, after meeting a Hare Krishna adherent named Chali (Kate Bosworth), gives that sect a spin, orange pajamas and all.
And Mom? Oh, Mom’s just going a little crazy, that’s all. She is obsessed with something: Is she having an affair? Does she have a skeleton in her closet? Her movements are furtive but clearly Meaningful — though what, exactly, they are supposed to mean, we don’t know for a very long time. (And even once we know what’s going on, we still don’t know why.)
Everyone is trying to connect with God in some way, or at least with “Light,” however you choose to define that. But their stories, from Myla Goldberg’s novel and adapted by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (Jake and Maggie’s mother), come off as impersonal and unfathomable when filtered through the arthouse minds of directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“The Deep End”). There is the sense, in the end, that each of the characters has learned something, but we don’t know what or how. The film tries to jump to the final step — the audience feels satisfied — without filling in the important steps that come before it.
C+ (1 hr., 44 min.; )