How do you spell my reaction to Bee Season? U-G-H.
There's so much wrong with this sprawling domestic melodrama that I hardly know where to begin – Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal's adaptation of Myla Goldberg's well-regarded novel amps up the symbolism to the point of distraction, while the plot itself is an exercise in opacity and the cast is left to over-emote for no discernible reason.
You're asked to believe avowed Buddhist Richard Gere as Saul Naumann, a studious, passionate professor of Judaic history (uh huh); Flora Cross gives a creepily robotic performance devoid of any real emotion as Eliza Naumann; Juliette Binoche is fairly wasted as the distracted, unbalanced mother, Miriam Naumann; and Max Minghella may as well have "rebellious teen" tattooed on his forehead as Aaron Naumann.
But I digress – there are extremely fleeting moments within Bee Season where the filmmakers' intent can be glimpsed. The relationship between Eliza and Aaron is believably sketched and I appreciate the filmmakers trying to put across Aaron's exploration of the Buddhist faith as youthful rebellion, but it rings false, as does his chance meeting of the mysterious Chali (Kate Bosworth) in a city park.
Bee Season attempts to relate a tumultuous few months in the life of the Naumann family – father Saul is buried, as usual, in his work, while mother Miriam is desperately trying to hold herself together, haunted by an unseen event in her life that's driving her to distraction. Young Eliza is discovering a knack for spelling, leading her father to devote increasing amounts of time to her, hoping to channel her spelling abilities in an effort to converse with God, while Aaron begins to feel neglected and strikes out on his own.
Again, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) attempt to weigh down the film with too much symbolism; for a tale fraught with domestic drama and pivoting on a young girl's ascension through the national spelling bee ranks, Bee Season feels extremely overwrought. But even more distracting that the pitched emotions is McGehee and Siegel's insistence on crafting Miriam's story out of bits and pieces that make no sense and are given no context. I'm not asking the filmmakers to (forgive me) spell it out but give me something to work with – glimpsed snippets of why she's apparently going crackers only inspires the same feelings in me.
So what, if anything, is redeeming about Bee Season? Well, the film is beautifully shot by Giles Nuttgens, with the San Francisco locations looking gorgeous. Other than that, not much else clicks – the film seems much better suited to Lifetime than the silver screen and it's astounding to see McGehee and Siegel stumble so after the taut brilliance of 2001's The Deep End. It's hard to know whether Gyllenhaal's adaptation missed the mark or whether the directors just botched the translation, but clearly, somewhere along the creative path, things went haywire.
How do you spell my recommendation for Bee Season? E-H-H.
Bee Season's lush visuals are done luminous justice with Fox's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (a 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer is available on the flipper's opposite side) - smooth, crisp and clear, there's no smearing or edge enhancement to distract from Nuttgens' exceptional work.
While mostly a film driven by dialogue, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack presents a clean soundstage, punctuated by the occasional surround effect (most notably when Eliza or Saul go all trance-y). No distortion, no drop-out and no overpowering score, Bee Season sounds as good as it looks. English, French and Spanish subtitles are also on board.
For a film that made minimal theatrical impact, Fox has seen fit to include a healthy selection of bonus material: directors McGehee and Siegel sit for a low key, informative commentary track, while producer Albert Berger and screenwriter Gyllenhaal also sit for a commentary, delving more into the adaptation of Goldberg's novel and the narrative nuts and bolts. Six deleted scenes are included, with optional McGehee and Siegel commentary, in rough, time-coded non-anamorphic widescreen, playable separately or together for an aggregate of six minutes, 30 seconds and rounding out the package is a five minute, 30 second featurette on the making of Bee Season.
While intentions may have been noble in adapting Myla Goldberg's New Age-y Bee Season, the filmmakers stumbled somewhere along the path – it's a film worth a cursory spin, but hardly a blind buy. Rent it.
Portions of this review were reprinted from the Oklahoma Gazette.