A review of “Bee Season” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for intensity and mature themes

Run Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

 

 

The subtle heartbreak of “Searching for Bobby Fischer” meets the dreamy idealism of “A Beautiful Mind” in this cleverly intentioned but slightly disjointed drama.

Words and letters open the secrets to the universe for eleven-year old Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross), she of the stunning baby blues. Eliza is the black sheep of a family of intellectual over-achievers who displays a remarkable aptitude for spelling bees, forcing her family to sit up and take notice.

          Since hers is not your typical happy home the implications are significant. Dad Saul (Richard Gere) is a distant perfectionist and religious scholar with a burning desire to get closer to God. Mom Miriam (Juliette Binoche) is an insecure, preoccupied lab rat with a hidden agenda of her own.

          With each successive bee win the family dynamic suffers a seismic psychological shift. Big brother Aaron (Max Minghella) resents his dad’s sudden singular focus on Eliza and rebels by striking out on a religiously controversial quest. As Eliza shoulders the burden of domestic notoriety the emotional cornerstones of the Naumanns’ fragile union begin to crumble.

          Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel understand the nuanced shades of intimate relations as evidenced by their bleak 2001 indie “The Deep End”. Add to that knack a vivid visual style that finds tender seedlings sprouting from Eliza’s shoulders as she envisions and spells the word “cotyledon” and the magical realism of a lovely paper bird taking flight while our erstwhile champion sounds out “origami”.

          “Bee” speaks volumes about a pre-destined place in the family equation and a more ethereal position in the universe. Threads of narrative dangle tantalizing themes -- religion, science, mental illness – that intrigue but don’t quite cleave.

          Both Cross and Minghella work wonders with their feature film debuts. Cross in particular displays an innate sense of craft and ability to convey sentiment with simple words and gestures. Gere does fine work but Binoche disappoints in a bewildering and underwritten role.

          Strikingly crafted and worth a look.