Here’s a spelling word for you: fatuous.
Bee Season is a terrible and smug film, a movie that made me actually angry. If that was the effect it was going for I would call it a masterpiece, but since I am pretty sure that inchoate rage is the exact opposite of what the filmmakers are trying to evoke in you, the film is a dismal failure.
Based on a best selling novel, Bee Season is about a little girl who suddenly gets very good at spelling bees. Richard Gere is her father, a religious scholar, who sees connections between her spelling abilities and the mystical Jewish Kabbalah. Juliette Binoche is her mother, who seems unhappy and spends most of the movie doing stuff that infuriatingly makes no sense until the end. And Max Minghella, son of director Anthony, is her brother, who is searching for his own place away from his domineering father and ends up with the Hare Krishnas.
Gere’s character is a pompous jerk, making his casting a stroke of genius. He’s the kind of guy who runs around dropping little bits of knowledge and factoid like they’re treats for his family. He’s completely wrapped up in himself and sees his children only as extension of himself, sent out in the world to collect glory and reflect it on him. By the end of the film the only character I actually liked was Minghella as the son, and I couldn’t tell if that was because Minghella turned out to be a very good actor or if it’s because that character shared my loathing for Gere.
Binoche is given a role that redefines thankless, and that borders on the straight up embarrassing. I hated her, too. And once the film finally deigned us ready to learn what that character had been up to all along (going to houses, parking on the street in the middle of the night, sleeping at the kitchen table and wandering out of the house in her pajamas), I didn’t feel sorry for her but amazed that the sort of sheer lunacy on display was being tossed off as a minor subplot.
What really pissed me off about the film, though, was its facile treatment of spirituality. I suspect that film isn’t the best medium to discuss real spirituality – it’s too immediate and too literal. And Bee Season doesn’t seem to have the ability to discuss spirituality without coming down on one side of the debate pretty solidly. The son joins the Hare Krishnas but they’re never presented as a really viable alternative to his father’s Judaism – in fact, it seems that the choice of Krishnas, the most visible weird cult today, is shorthand to tell us that the kid won’t be getting answers there. The script also has the kid recruited into the Krishnas by a hot girl, further demoting his spiritual quest to standard hormonal activity.
Then there’s Binoche, whose character is seemingly driven mad by the very principals her husband teaches to his college classes. She’s a convert to Judaism, and it comes across like she couldn’t handle the pressures of being a chosen person.
But it’s at the end when the film gets egregious. Unable to accept the connection between Kabbalah and the spelling bee (which is pretty clever, actually) as mere metaphor, the film completely literalizes everything, giving the young girl a bona fide religious experience. And in case you’re not sure if this is a religious experience or an epileptic seizure (which have a lot in common, neuroscientists tell us these days), she actually levitates.
The whole film feels sort of like a Jewish Celestine Prophecy, with easy and comforting answers just around the corner for all good people of upper middle class breeding. Bee Season ends on a preposterous note of good will – the girl throws the national spelling bee and this somehow reconnects Gere and Minghella (Binoche remains institutionalized! I was almost expecting the Hand of God to come down and untouch her) and everybody hugs and we see that maybe bad spelling can bring us together after all.
What’s most frustrating is that all of this nonsense is housed in a film that, at times, has real vision. The spelling bee scenes are often wonderful, as we see into the girl’s head and understand how her spelling skill works – she visualizes everything, so that the word ‘dandelion’ is spelled out in dandelions floating on the wind. It’s not that Bee Season is poorly made, it’s just that it’s arrogant and has less to say than it thinks it does. And most of what it has to say is probably best encountered on a pamphlet.