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.
The film, 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 of the same name, 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.
Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose visual schemes lent a hypnotic aura to their previous collaborations -- "The 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 in 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.
-- Desson Thomson