God's special connection to the world lies in pieces and it's going to take innumerable acts of human goodwill to repair that broken vessel. This is the spiritual metaphor Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) lays out for his 11-year-old daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) in "Bee Season."
A former underachiever who has suddenly acquired a talent for spelling bees, Eliza has become the family's overnight star. Her secret, she tells her father, is a mystical ability to visualize complicated words. She literally sees the letters float in front of her.
Saul, a biblical scholar deeply drawn to Kabbalah, believes he can train Eliza in the ancient Jewish doctrine, thereby opening her up to the mysteries of words, the secrets of the universe and, ultimately, union with God. Those competitions, he tells her, should be treated as a mere conduit for Eliza's greater mission. He pulls out the big books and his own research papers, and they get down to work.
"Bee Season," which also stars Juliette Binoche, aims to evoke the power of religion through Eliza's psychic journey and the effect she has on her divided family. But the story, adapted from Myla Goldberg's novel, turns on a disappointingly routine premise: The self-absorbed Saul is so busy pushing his daughter into the higher realm he doesn't realize his own family is falling apart. Instead of trying to save the world -- is everyone writing this down? -- he could start by getting his own house in order.
Saul's wife, Miriam (Binoche), for instance, is another broken vessel. We know this because of recurrent flashback images of shattered glass and a car accident. Lately, she's been sneaking out of her job as a lab scientist to steal glass trinkets and crystals from strangers' homes. Saul and Miriam's son, Aaron (Max Minghella), a talented musician, is also leading a secret life. He has been skipping out to the local Hare Krishna temple to find God in his own way, with help from his newfound girlfriend, Chali (Kate Bosworth).
What's going on with Miriam? Will Saul learn to listen to Aaron instead of yelling at him? Is Eliza going to find God, save the world and bring her family together? Unfortunately, these questions fail to compel us, because Naomi Foner's screenplay fails to address its topics more than superficially.
Minghella (director Anthony Minghella's son) has a spirited turn as Aaron, and first-time performer Cross exudes Eliza's ineffable qualities. But the adults are surprisingly ineffective. Gere's fussy, over-earnest performance makes it hard to connect emotionally with him. He's Yoda as an overachieving yuppie. ("The path is dangerous," he tells Eliza.) Binoche may be a naturally alluring presence but she doesn't fit in this family, or this movie. It's as if she wandered off the set of a nearby French-language production.
Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose visual schemes lent a hypnotic aura to their previous collaborations -- "Deep End" and "Suture" -- don't find the right balance of story and image this time. They seem more interested in the special effects razzle-dazzle -- creating a gorgeous cascade of flowering seeds, for instance, when Eliza visualizes "dandelion" -- than the movie's serious underpinnings. Saul himself would have cautioned them not to focus so literally on the words and think instead about the movie's deeper meaning.
Bee Season (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense themes, a scene of sensuality and profanity.