The Barenaked Archives: Bee Season

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

S-P-E-L-L T-H-I-Sbee-season

I went into Bee Season knowing only one thing about it: the little girl, Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross), was a champion speller. Having been one of many children to go through the spelling bee circuit in elementary and middle school, I had an immediate bond with the movie’s sixth-grade protagonist.

But thankfully, there is more to Bee Season than spelling bees or it would wind up driving people I-N-S-A-N-E. The heart of this movie is the drama within Eliza’s family, a family whose “perfect” façade starts to crack as Eliza wins her way through the spelling bees. Parts of it get slow, very slow, but overall Bee Season remains a well-made family drama that leaves us with a sense that everything will turn out all right.

At the beginning, Eliza is a precocious sixth-grader who thinks her father Saul (Richard Gere) prefers her talented older brother (Max Minghella) to her. It’s not until Eliza starts winning spelling bees that she gets Saul’s attention, and he cheerfully starts tutoring her in lieu of paying attention to Brother and her mother Mimi (Juliette Binoche). The family’s seams slowly start to come undone, and it may be that Eliza is the only one who can bring them back together.

The most fascinating part of the story is probably Mimi’s slow breakdown. She’s a kleptomaniac and she gradually comes apart, something her husband is practically oblivious to. You’re kept wondering as to what she’s doing and why, and her story is uncovered at a perfect pace, although the end of what she’s actually doing is more of a “What the…huh?” than an “Ah, so that’s it…”

Eliza’s older Brother has the next best story, with his rejection of his father’s Judaism and search for new spiritual enlightenment. Whether it’s an honest spiritual crisis or just jealous rebellion that all the attention that used to belong to him is now going to his sister isn’t obvious, and it lets the audience draw their own conclusions about him. He has a nice arc as he goes from favored child to ignored one.

Eliza’s part in the story, on the other hand, tends to get confusing. Her father spends most of his time not only tutoring her with the words, but also getting her to try exercises developed by Jewish mystics hoping to use language to get closer to God. The explanations of these exercises and their purpose don’t make a whole lot of sense. Also, it takes a minute for the little CGI illustrations of how she “sees” the words to really come together, and sometimes they don’t at all.

However, this doesn’t mean that Eliza isn’t an interesting character. She’s clearly smart and wants her father’s approval, but once she gets it she isn’t blind to the effects it has on the rest of the family. She knows something is wrong with her brother and mother, and she wants to make it better. Ultimately, it comes down that it is just her who can start to repair the cracks in the family circle.

Saul is both controlling and ignorant of the effect his attention (or lack thereof) is having on his family. As far as he’s concerned, everything is just hunky-dory. At times he glimpses that something’s amiss, but doesn’t have any idea that his actions could be part of the cause of it. It makes you want to grab him and scream, but he probably still wouldn’t get it.

Bee Season‘s a good little family drama, and despite the bad that happens in it, you get the feeling by the end that the Naumanns will find a way to come back together. It’s not necessarily a happy ending, but a hopeful one, and hopeful is really all you need.

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