Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) could hardly be called an inattentive father, but he does struggle with juggling between his two children. A philosophy professor at Berkley as well as a devout and academic Jew, his focus is closely fixed on his son Aaron (Max Minghella) who is showing great promise as a classical musician. What he doesn't know is his young daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) is becoming a spelling champ.
On the morning of her district's Spelling Bee, the young girl quietly asks Aaron if he can give her a ride to school. The thoughtful brother not only brings her to the event, but also stays and supports her. When she wins, the pair decides to drop in on dad and show him the big trophy. Thrilled, Saul tells Eliza she will ride home with him. The mere offer of a ride, which leaves Aaron behind, heavily foreshadows what's in store.
Drawing upon his excitement and knowledge surrounding Kabbalah--a form of Jewish mysticism allowing a person to speak and interact with God--Saul teaches his daughter that letters hold the secrets to the universe. He also believes she holds a rare gift with which she can to tap into spiritual resources in a way far greater than most people will ever achieve.
His assessment appears to be correct, as we watch the young girl spell graduate-level university words, which are visually formed in her mind by related objects--for instance leaves and flowers sprout to spell an organic plant term that I can't even begin to recall.
By now audiences are convinced they are well into a family film about faith and a father's love, however things are about to become far more complicated. Sensing his father is more interested in what his children can accomplish than who they are, Aaron decides to find his own answers to religious questions. Joining a Hindu sect, he lies to his parents about his whereabouts on several occasions.
And did I say "parents?" Yes, there is a mother (Juliette Binoche) in this family, too. Miriam is a former Catholic (we are left with the impression she has adopted Judaism) who quietly counts microbes during her day job as a laboratory scientist, but by night she secretly pursues another activity that reveals an ongoing psychological illness.
With mother headed to a mental hospital, brother celebrating with the Hare Krishna, and sister preparing for the national spelling bee championships, Saul's character yearns for greater control over all aspects of his family's life, yet in reality is barely managing his own. Trying to be father, mother, coach and spiritual adviser to everyone, he is about to discover how evasive "control" truly is.
This thought provoking film obviously delves into some heavy issues likely not suitable for children as young as Eliza. A passionate sexual encounter between the parents (with clothes on) is somewhat justified in depicting the strained relationship between Saul and Miriam. The script also rationalizes two uses of the sexual expletive (along with one other profanity), as part of the heated feelings expressed during a father/son argument. And followers of Judaism may not appreciate Hollywood's representation of their religion.
Yet Bee Season's powerful performances and thoughtful treatment of its topic make it a legitimate film likely to leave a different impression on each audience member. As a father, I appreciated the lessons of trying to be everything to everyone. However, depending on the season of life you are in, the messages in this film may spell something entirely different.