Bee Season has two directors (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and no, I don't know how the DGA lets them get away with it), and yet, somehow, it's one of the most distinctive auteur works I've seen in years. It's the story of the Naumanns, a happy, attractive, comfortable family living in a dark-wood home struck through with the bright-white sunlight of a Northern California winter, and the way their lives are both shattered and fixed when divine light starts to refract itself through their everyday. The patriarch is Saul (Richard Gere), a Kabbalah professor and a control freak who runs the household as a top-down economy with a strong "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" policy of prejudice. His wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) is beautiful but secretive, and quite possibly unbalanced; their 16-year-old son Aaron (Max Minghella) is closely-held and a bit naive; his 11-year-old sister Eliza is both supernaturally intense and easily ignored.
Saul imposes incredible, unmeetable standards on the people he professes to love, but it's nor hard to see where he's coming from – he has a lot to lose. The reigns start to slip away from him, and the family's entire way of being is thrown out of whack, when Eliza wins a school spelling bee. As she begins to rise through the ranks of regional tournaments, then makes it to states, and, finally, to national competition, each member of the household slides into some kind of reckoning of faith. Eliza is the catalyst of it all: she watches and even physically feels the havoc she's wraught, and yet she firmly remains the family's (and the film's) zen center, the ever-calm eye of a storm that both mesmerizes and confounds.
When Eliza's at the mic at one of her bees, she waits for the proctor to announce the word, and then she closes her eyes. Soon we cut into the little girl's head, where she sees the space as if her eyes were open, but with one (particularly advantageous) magical-realist twist. In Eliza's version of any given room, the air itself is full of helpers which never fail to point our intrepid young speller in the right direction of victory. If there isn't, say, an exit sign in the classroom, or an intramural banner on the back wall of the auditorium, for her imagined origami spectres to point to, Eliza waits until tiny bits of karmic dust arrange themselves, literaly out of thin air, into just-perceptible models of the letters she needs. Whether or not Eliza truly has some kind of telekinetic gift, or just believes that she does, is left purposely vague; regardless, something clearly happens to Eliza when she spells, and that something is, to put it mildly, contagious.
Eliza's talent is probably the simplest thing in the world – the almost-dance sequences built around it leave room for the idea that it's just an exaggeration of a natural thought process – but living, as she does, in a household innured to the touch of mysticism, it becomes a huge deal. Previously more-or-less indifferent to her daily activities, once she starts bringing home trophies her father takes intense notice. They start working together every afternoon to unpack and fine-tune Eliza's powers via the ancient methods of the Kabbalah, and soon both are, to various degrees, convinced that God is working through the little girl while she spells. It's a blinding thing for them to face, and though it's a secret between father and daughter, there's clearly some dynamic change that spills over to the rest of the family. Soon Aaron retaliates commiting the ultimate sin for a Kabbalah professor's son; Miriam, off on her own tangent already, looses any foothold in the family that might have allowed her to easily return.
From the set design to the costuming to the digital effects that realise Eliza's visions, Bee Season is probably the most visually exciting film I've seen all year. Even when its plot contortions lose their logic (Binoche's plight, in particular, feels shoddily realised) and its structuring metaphors (keep an eye out for kaleidoscopes) start to feel obtuse, each and every frame is so gorgeous – and so clearly shot through with a passionate vision that truly rewards an eye for detail – that it would feel unseemly to complain. I suppose what I'm really saying, is that Bee Season is some kind of femme fatale – it seduces you with its beauty and its style and its mood, to the point where, even when it does bad things, you're willing to let it slide. It's not exactly a dark film, but there's also not a lot of levity in it (in fact, the word on which the final bee hinges is the closest it gets to having a joke). Some will find this a drag, but I thought is was refreshing to see a film made by a mini-major take itself so seriously.
I've not read the book on which Bee Season is based, but Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal's script weaves intensely literary passages of speech into everyday discourse with great skill and apparent ease. Not to slight the screenwriter (mother of Jake and Maggie) in any way, but it's truly to the credit of the performers, expecially Gere, that she pulls this trick off. I don't know why Richard Gere isn't a more celebrated actor, but I would venture a guess that it has a little something to do with his sheer good-lookingness. But I think it's worth noting that Gere is unique amongst male stars at his measurable level of sex appeal, in that I've never seen him spit out the same performance twice.
There's something undeniably compelling about being a spectator of knowledge-based sports. I don't think history's various quiz show phenomena have nearly as much to do with watching "the little guy" win as they do with the masochistic pleasure brought on by the agony of having an answer that said competitor doesn't. This dynamic is magnified by a spelling bee, in which, for whatever reason, adults don't compete. I certainly didn't know how to spell all of the words tossed out to Eliza throughout the course of the film, but there's this assumption that, as a grown-up, I really should. There's a bizarre tension to watching children reconstruct words you've never heard of; there's a worry, until they screw up, that something about the dominant order of things has gone askew.
And the casting here amplifies anything unsettling in the material, in the best of all ways. Eliza is played by Flora Cross, and if there's been a stronger performance by a female child actor this millenium, I certainly haven't seen it. Tressed and dressed in the style of a 26-year-old hipster boy, Cross fully emerses herself in this hyper-intense character. The casting of child actors is a weird thing; until they reach the level of a Dakota Fanning, it's hard to seperate the child from the role – especially since most thesps who get their start pre-puberty seem to hit a brick wall after two or three notable roles. After watching Bee Season, I certainly couldn't imagine Cross playing anyone else, but I hope she gets a chance to. A face like hers, with its Mick Jagger lips and cheeks inflated to root-canal puffiness, could fundamentally alter the way we think about beauty if spread around enough.