Our tumultuous political climate has threatened to overtake the realm of film as each side battles for the right to claim moral high ground and hoist the banner for religious activism. However, for the most part, the movies causing the most uproar have been those about the minds and sensibilities of children. Anticipation rises with the arrival of each new Harry Potter book and film — the latest being Mike Newell's mature and assured Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — and with it so does the ever-persistent rumblings that young Harry and his magical world has a most un-Christian bent. In December, audiences will be presented with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the first of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia stories, which bear the weight of Lewis' role as a leading religious scholar.
With such epic battles on the forefront, who would have suspected that filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel would emerge as the team behind the most spiritual offering of the holiday season? The duo began as post-modern tricksters with their black-and-white debut, Suture, featuring Dennis Haysbert (long before anyone would have pegged him as presidential material) and Michael Harris as a most unlikely set of biological brothers brought together by a noirish inheritance scheme and switched identities. The film worked best as a visual punch line, but hinted at a twisted intelligence rooted in stark compositions. Their follow-up, The Deep End, remained in noir territory but dug beneath the polished veneer of Margaret Hall (the ever-brilliant Tilda Swinton) and her nuclear family to uncover an unstable core.
Now they return with an adaptation of Myla Goldberg's novel, Bee Season, which quietly hints at unrest among the Naumann family. Father Saul (Richard Gere) is a Jewish religious scholar with a burning, sometimes overbearing intellectual drive for all things spiritual.
In contrast, wife and mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) is a scientist who's been emotionally rootless since an accident that took her parents when she was young. Aaron (Max Minghella) begins as his father's favorite, a precocious classical musician-in-training who quickly shifts to the periphery as Saul's obsessions turn to young spelling bee champion Eliza (Flora Cross, who along with Minghella makes a solid debut).
Although Eliza is the axis of the narrative, the family members each embark on separate spiritual journeys — seemingly in isolation — that threaten to split them apart. As Bee Season progresses, McGehee and Siegel apply their skills in subtle ways. The escalating deceptions and instances of emotional neglect are reminiscent of the harsher recriminations in the pair's previous thrillers. But in Bee Season, the impact of the consequences strikes tender and exposed hearts.
The stark visual compositions of Suture blossom into bursts of magic realism in Bee Season, as letters and words spring to life when they are called into existence in the bees. Unlike the young contestants captured in the wonderful documentary Spellbound, Eliza channels the spirit of words and language without the need for traditional practice. Saul's study of Jewish mysticism, leads him to believe his daughter might very well be a mystic. Accordingly, he sets her on a course leading towards a spiritual awakening.
With his silvery mane, Gere has gracefully aged into the dramatic patriarch with enough intensity to be blinded by an academic obsession, yet more importantly the charm to compel the audience to identify with the only character without a true calling of his own. Saul faithfully bears witness to the experiences of his wife and children, attempting to control each of their courses.
Binoche invests her role as mother, wife and lost soul with a presence born of past performances — in particular her turn as the sexually aloof lover of a father and son in Louis Malle's Damage. To borrow a line from that movie, Miriam is dangerous because she is damaged and damaged people "know they can survive." Through Miriam, Binoche displays that damage and the ragged, fragile effort to make her whole in the face of a conventional life that cannot contain her truth. It is a performance that initially feels as if it belongs to another film, yet it contrasts perfectly with Gere's smooth facade.
Despite the brief nods to Jewish mysticism and Aaron's exposure to Buddhism thanks to his flirtation with Chali (Kate Bosworth in a glowing cameo), Bee Season best addresses spirituality by not grounding itself too deeply in any specific religious practice. Yet the small miracles illustrated through the effects are just as organic as that of the human performances. This lightness of being makes each journey accessible. As Saul discovers, spirituality is not about control. McGehee and Siegel trust the simplicity of the sentimental narrative and achieve a beauty borne of childlike wonder. Grade: A-