Bee Season Review
By Shawn McKenzie 04/30/2006
When I was a kid, I entered a spelling bee in my hometown of Grand Junction, CO. My grandmother took me to it, and since I was a decent speller, I felt like I could go far. By no means did I think that I could win, but I thought that I could last a few rounds. I don’t remember if it was the first or second round, but I was eliminated after failing to spell the word “chic” correctly. Actually, I did spell it right, but I actually spelled its homonym “sheik” correctly instead, and I heard that the year after, the bee was required to let contestants know when a word was a homonym. I was devastated to be knocked out so early for a word that was so easy, and I never tried again thereafter. I have always been fascinated by spelling bees though, and I hoped that Bee Season would be a good movie because of that, despite the presence of one of my least favorite actors, Richard Gere. Alas, the movie spelt out doom in my opinion.
Sixth-grader Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) is a quiet little girl who feels average in her upper middle class Oakland, California family. Her father Saul (Gere) is a religions studies professor at U.C. Berkeley who specializes in the teachings and secrets of Kabbalah. Her mom Miriam (Juliette Binoche) is a scientist who converted from Catholicism to Judaism after marrying Saul, and her older brother Aaron (Max Minghella) is a musical prodigy. When Eliza wins her school’s spelling bee, Saul doesn’t seem to notice (her permission slip to go to the district finals gets lost in the shuffle in Saul’s paperwork.) Aaron takes her to the district bee, where she once again wins. The local paper covers her win, and that’s when Saul finally takes notice of her…a little too much. Saul’s college graduate thesis was about the works of a 13th century Kabbalah scholar named Abraham Abulafia who believed that careful analysis of words could lead to a mystical connection with God. Eliza has the uncanny ability to see the spelling words in her head (which shows up visually via trippy CGI special effects in the form of flowers growing out of her dress, dandelions and pencil markings forming words, an origami bird flying by, etc.) Saul begins to concentrate solely on training Eliza, which alienates the rest of the family, making both Miriam and Aaron act out in strange ways. Miriam is depressed and growing mentally instable, but this isn’t necessarily because of the bees though. When she was a little girl, a young Miriam (Alisha Mullally) witnessed her parents die in a car accident, and because of this, she has been spending more of her time away from the house and breaking into other peoples’ homes. She is looking for shiny things to capture the light of its shards and bring meaning to her life (she got this idea after listening to one of Saul’s lectures), and because of this, she is arrested and placed in a mental institution. Aaron used to be the favorite, but now that Eliza has taken that title, he begins to question his religious beliefs. One day while reading a book about Hinduism in a local park, he meets Chali (Kate Bosworth), a Hare Krishna who is walking her dog at the time. She is cute, but he seems to connect with her on a religious level, and soon after, he finds himself sneaking out of the house to pray with her and the other Hare Krishnas. Eliza sees her family disintegrating, so she tries to find a way to save them, which may include an unusual act of spelling sacrifice on her part at the National Spelling Bee.
Spelling bees are now a competitive sport that is broadcast every year on ESPN. I’m not a big sports watcher, but whenever I hear that it is on, I like to check it out. The first fictional representation of a spelling bee that I ever saw was 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown, in which Charles Schulz’s blockhead biffed it when he lost the National Spelling Bee on the word “beagle.” In 2002, there was an Academy Award-nominated feature documentary named Spellbound that showcased the 1999 National Spelling Bee. That movie was mesmerizing, and it probably should have won over the actual winner (Bowling for Columbine, which, despite my original praising of Michael Moore’s doc, has proven itself factually false in retrospect.) I was really hoping that I would like this movie because of the spelling angle.
There are two reasons why I didn’t like it…tripped-out CGI and Gere. I know that the visions that Eliza has were meant to be metaphors, but when you see them, they are just weird. I have never liked psychedelic special effects, and I thought that they were oddly placed in this movie. Once again, Gere annoyed me with his one-note acting. The good movies that have featured Gere were good despite the gerbil-loving actor, and this movie didn’t have an interesting story or an upstaging co-star (Juliet Roberts, Edward Norton, etc.) to help him out.
I will say that the kids in this movie both out-acted the adults. Cross in her debut was a natural, so I hope that she will be able to show off her chops in a better movie. The same thing goes for Minghella (he will be able to do just that in the upcoming indie Art School Confidential, which I think looks promising.)
Co-directing partners Scott McGehee and David Siegel helmed Bee Season, using a screenplay written by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (mom of Jake and Maggie) and based on the 2000 novel by Myla Goldberg. I’ve heard good things about their previous effort, 2001’s The Deep End, but I haven’t seen it yet. It spells trouble for me when a movie about a spelling bee bores and confuses me, and I don’t intend to check it out again.
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