Tepid literary adaptations are a dime a remainder pile, but even someone unacquainted with Myla Goldberg’s much admired 2000 novel Bee Season might get a whiff of the lamp burning holes through its screen projection. Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s two previous features, the psychological thrillers Suture (1993) and The Deep End (2001), cultivated a chilly opacity of tone and a studied ambiguity in key aspects of plotting and staging. The directors’ aptitude for gleaming obliquity might well have conducted the mystical amperage of Goldberg’s novel—here relocated from Philadelphia to a moneyed Oakland suburb—in which the ostensibly “unimpressive fifth-grader” Eliza Naumann ascends the spelling-bee ranks in a strange tandem with her family’s fragmentation and collapse. Unfortunately, the celluloid Naumanns (as screenwritten by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal) are mere vestiges of their source, bearing all the familiar marks of the mistranslated book character—they’re at turns shallow and inscrutable, their pathways tweezed into overdetermined vectors.
Before she wins her first spelling trophy, stoic Eliza (Flora Cross) occupies at best an auxiliary role in the mind of her control freak dad, Saul (Richard Gere), a religious-studies professor whose amply showcased intellectual, spiritual, and culinary prowess holds his entire household in a benign tyrannyof supreme competence. As might any flabbergasted viewer of the documentary Spellbound, Saul gets a case of the gnostics as Eliza’s seemingly sourceless orthographic gifts come into focus; he dumps his pet teenage son, Aaron (Max Minghella), in favor of intensive training with his new chosen one in Kabbalah, hoping to help Eliza unlock the “primal energy” contained in the sacred letters of the Hebrew alphabet. (Though Cross is a radiant, steadying presence as Eliza, would that Bee Season had provided the debutante screen role for Lourdes Leon.)
As Eliza makes legible the mysteries of the sefirot, her brother and mother’s behavior becomes increasingly garbled. Stung by the fickleness of his father’s own primal energies (Gere’s performance strikes a perfect balance of jocular egotism and striver edginess), Hebrew-school ace Aaron goes impulse shopping at first a church and then, more pivotally, an ashram after a chance encounter with Hare Krishna sylph Chali (Kate Bosworth), who brightly intones, “Something’s missing . . . from your life.” Same goes for chronically anguished mom Miriam (Juliette Binoche), who’s beset by flashbacks to her parents’ death in a car accident and keeps finding herself in strangers’ apartments. Oddly, the movie internalizes Daddy’s formidable self-regard by presenting Aaron and Miriam’s spiritual disarray as a mess of Saul’s own making, while Aaron’s absurdly petulant reaction to his pensive little sister’s spelling tutorials leaves his bhakti in serious doubt.
Just as The Deep End nearly drowned in its liquid symbolism, Bee Season indulges many a runic omen—the portentous credit sequence tracks a massive letter A dangling from a helicopter—but the visual effects do effect a playful semiotic suture: Asked to spell dandelion, the visionary Eliza shuts her eyes and wills imaginary seeds to draw the letters in the air; given cotyledon, calligraphic plant life sprouts from her flowered blouse. Indeed, much of the film’s imagery tends an expressionist garden, from the autumnal shades of Michael E. Goldman’s art direction to the nearly cartoonish lushness of the Naumanns’ backyard, as captured in Giles Nuttgens’s beautiful cinematography. But the abundant warmth and color of the impeccable surfaces don’t infuse the characterizations or illuminate the movie’s final epiphany. The entire film drives toward one person’s momentous decision, but why the choice is made, and how it apparently enables catharsis for the whole family, remain bafflingly obscure. The mysticism only mystifies; its hieroglyphics are vividly rendered, but Bee Season never manages to spell them out.