Saul Naumann (Richard Gere), a professor at Cal Berkeley specializing in various aspects of the Kabbalah, lives in Oakland with his wife, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), son Aaron (Max Minghella) and daughter Eliza (Flora Cross). Saul is obsessed with his teachings and studies and shuts his family out, spending large amounts of time in his study. When his children show some aptitude at a new skill, he devotes more and more time with them, obsessing over their newfound skill. His current family obsession is helping Aaron study music and the Kabbalah. Eliza wins her school spelling bee and is invited to participate in the city spelling bee. She leaves the invitation under the door of her father's study. When he doesn't mention it, she assumes that he doesn't have anything to say and asks Aaron to drive her to the competition. Which she wins. Bringing home the trophy, Saul is ecstatic and Eliza becomes his new project. Eliza has a gift; she can see the letters of any word forming before her eyes, helping her spell difficult words correctly. As Saul turns more and more of his attention to Eliza, Miriam and Aaron feel more and more abandoned and each pursues a strange and unusual path.
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose most recognized previous effort is a black and white film called "Suture" (a strange, unusual, but better film worth a rent from Netflix), "Bee" has all of the elements of one of those `feel good' movies that so frequently populate the multiplexes. Something the entire family can enjoy. The acting is good. The story has a central hook of the spelling bees, providing lots of shots of children in the various competitions. In other words, if it looks, acts and talks like an elephant, it must be an elephant. But in the case of "Bee", the path of the characters take off in some strange, not entirely believable directions, robbing the film of any of the impact it may have had, making it more appropriate for adults who won't necessarily appreciate all of the shots of kids at spelling bees.
Gere is okay. He has certainly been better and he has certainly been worse in other films. We have seen him play the devoted father/ husband before and in "Bee" he plays an emotionally distant version of this same character. Because of this, Saul doesn't seem connected to the other people in his family. This would be interesting and believable if there were some kind of payoff in the end. The finale is abrupt and seems emotionally bereft. It seems as though the actors are exchanging meaningful looks like they understand what the characters are supposed to be experiencing, but this doesn't translate to the screen. We, the audience, don't understand what they are supposed to be experiencing and the film ultimately means little.
Juliette Binoche is good. We get the sense that Miriam is growing more and more distant from her husband. Why this is happening is a little muddled, but there is enough of a reason for this that we get it. Towards the middle of the film, her character begins to do strange things which are never really explained. We see the actions, but we don't understand the motivations behind them. Because of this, her character is an enigma that is never fully explained.
Aaron (Max Minghella) is a bit more complicated. Initially, he seems to be your typical teenager. His father pressures him to study music and the Kabbalah, becoming obsessed with his son's practice and training. Aaron appears mildly annoyed that he is under so much scrutiny. Then when his father's attentions shift to Eliza, he seems annoyed that his father has lost interest in him. This part works, but when he starts to follow a different path and become a more rebellious teenager, the character falls apart. The problem is that his rebellious nature is very mild and never establishes his more wild side until it suddenly appears. He only seems mildly annoyed at things. So when he suddenly becomes a more stereotypical teen, the character doesn't work.
Flora Cross is perhaps the best thing about the film. She is the rare child actor who can actually act in a natural way. Eliza has the ability to see the words form before her eyes, one letter at a time, as she spells them out. She doesn't know where this ability comes from, or even question it, which seems natural for a 6th grader. But again, as he character develops, Eliza moves in a direction that is strange and not entirely convincing.
The film looks good. The settings are all beautiful and the filmmakers have made every attempt to find all of the best things about Oakland and the Bay Area, featuring them in different scenes.
I am a fan of stories, films and television that take us in unexpected directions. But those directions have to make sense. How does something unexpected make sense? In the case of "Bee", the characters have to make everything believable. Do we believe that they would do these unexpected things or take these unexpected actions? When one character changes their religion, it isn't believable because their actions haven't been strong enough to that point. When another character begins studying an ancient form of Kabbalah that allows them to speak to God, it really doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the story. When another character has a breakdown, again it doesn't seem integrated into their character's development or the story.
"Bee Season" is a pass.