Bee Season answers the question no Talmudic student or fan of Unfaithful has thought to ask: What would Richard Gere look like as a learned Jewish scholar and teacher? The answer is, much like the betrayed husband from Unfaithful — great hair, great wire-rim eyeglasses. Only instead of living the life of a WASP businessman named Ed, Gere’s character is called Saul. And he lectures on matters of Jewish arcana to rapt students moved by his attractive silveriness as well as by his passion for Kabbalistic mysticism that’s at once more rigorously erudite than Madonna’s Red String brand, and equally, conveniently, spiritual rather than religious.
Then Saul comes home to a house very much like Ed’s Westchester digs, filled with comfortable furniture and comfortably secular family problems familiar to all who live in a therapized world: While quiet daughter Eliza (newcomer Flora Cross) emerges, to the surprise and obsession of her father, as a whiz at spelling bees with an almost mystical ability to ”inhabit” the letters she enunciates, older brother Aaron (Max Minghella, son of director Anthony Minghella), who previously held the position of favored smart child, feels neglected and is drawn to a proselytizing cult. Meanwhile, Saul’s wife, Miriam (French actress Juliette Binoche, to whom Paris-born Cross bears an uncanny physical resemblance), becomes more and more psychologically unstable, in ways that leave Saul dumb as a husband, however brilliant he is as an academic. And while Saul teaches the Kabbalistic concept of repairing a shattered world, Eliza becomes the conduit for fixing a broken family.
Directed by The Deep End’s Scott McGehee and David Siegel from a script by Running on Empty screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (mother of those Gyllenhaals), Bee Season shows a fondness for photographing things that shimmer — letters in the air, crystals. The movie works earnestly to transform unfamiliar concepts of philosophy as well as by now exceedingly familiar concepts of endearing/sadistic spelling-bee hysteria into cinematically new representations of letters made flesh. But that same ecumenical earnestness, with its mild message of nonsectarian interpersonal healing, contradicts the restlessness, incandescence, and specificity so intrinsic to the story of a girl who feels one with the word.