Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (2005)
In Bee Season, a film by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, a suburban Oakland family discovers meaning and purpose in the Kabbalistic concept of tikkun olam, translated as repairing the world. Adapted by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (Running on Empty) from the novel by Myla Goldberg, the film explores the subject of Jewish mysticism and its effect on a dysfunctional family. Relying on the teachings of Isaac Luria, a 16th century Jewish Kabbalist, Berkeley Professor Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) instructs his students that God created the world by forming vessels of light but, as He poured the light into the vessels, they shattered and became countless shards. Thus, humanitys task is to free and reunite the scattered Light and restore the broken world. Naumann is an intellectual who reaches out to God but cannot connect with his family and they mirror the broken shards rather than the Divine Light.
Saul is close to his musically gifted son Aaron (Max Minghella) with whom he shares a love of music but ignores his 11-year old daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) until her talent for spelling is recognized and she wins local and regional spelling bees. He takes advantage of the opportunity to become closer to her by training her for the national championship and encouraging her to explore the mystical states that he only relates to conceptually. He sees in Eliza the potential to put into practice the teachings of the Kabbalah scholar Abulafia that enlightenment can be achieved through alignment of letters and words. He tells her that many cultures believe that letters are an expression of a special, powerful energy; that when they combine to make words, they hold all the secrets of the universe.EYet as Eliza and her father delve further into their studies, they forget to look around and see that the people around them are in trouble.
Aaron rejects his father's teachings and turns to Hinduism at the encouragement of a young woman named Chali (Kate Bosworth). He pretends to go on a weekend camping trip but instead dons orange robes and spends the time at a retreat for Hare Krishna followers, much to his father's displeasure. Unfortunately, the story treats his decision to explore a different faith as an adolescent lark rather than a legitimate spiritual quest and we never discover his true reasons for his interest. Meanwhile, Saul's wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) has flashbacks of a car accident that killed her parents. She takes the phrase Tikkun Olam Eto repair the worldE- literally and steals small glittering objects from people's homes in order to reconstruct the world but her own world begins to spiral downward. The sub-plots are not well developed however, and the characters' behavior is insufficiently motivated to be plausible.
The heart of the film lies in the transformation that is taking place within Eliza, dramatized in the spelling bee competitions. Although she has never seen or heard of a particular word before, she is able to visualize it in different ways by concentrating with her eyes closed, depicted on screen by clever special effects. We follow the gifted speller as she moves through one competition after another and marvel at how she is able to remain centered while the world around her is crumbling. The acting is credible and Cross is a promising newcomer but Gere emotes too much personal warmth and "star quality" to be fully convincing as a self-centered, emotionally detached Jewish scholar.
Bee Season has a potent message in so far as it celebrates an individual's use of personal power to alter their experience of reality. The filmmakers, however, fail to clarify what the film is trying to say. Various threads compete for attention: Eliza's personal experiences of God, Saul's Kabbalistic teachings, Aaron's turn to Eastern religion, and Miriam's sickness, but none are sufficiently developed to make a coherent statement. Even the ending that is supposed to bring some resolution leaves us scratching our heads. Bee Season is a well-intentioned film that tackles an important subject but ultimately fails to fully explore the depth of its characters or the true meaning of its message, and I found its suggestion that a family can love God but not each other to be incongruous.