Bee Season stung by miscasting

Close your eyes and imagine Richard Gere as a Jewish religious studies professor. Now imagine the words “tikkun olam” coming out of his mouth.

Can’t do it, can you? And not just because you can’t focus on anything but his crinkly eyes and silver hair.

Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s tepid, enervated “Bee Season,” adapted from Myla Goldberg’s novel, suffers from a slew of wrong choices. But the key stumble occurs in the first five minutes, when we’re asked to accept Gere as a Jewish academic.

Now, I’m not saying that a character named Saul Naumann can only be portrayed by a Jewish actor. (Though come to think of it, is Judd Hirsch still around?) Nor am I suggesting, God forbid, that all middle-aged Jewish professors are homely.

I’m merely maintaining that if you cast a pretty-boy movie star as a Jewish intellectual, he’d better be convincing. And for all of Gere’s on-screen sincerity and off-screen integrity, he doesn’t persuade us that he’s a maven on Jewish thought, let alone a Kabbalah scholar.

“Bee Season,” which was filmed in the East Bay and closed the Mill Valley Film Festival last month, opens Friday, Nov. 11 around the Bay Area.

The film revolves around a close, affluent family of four whose delicate balance is upset when the youngest child wins a spelling bee. Eliza (Flora Cross), a docile 9-year-old overshadowed her entire life by her smart, musically talented brother, hasn’t just discovered a new skill — she’s tapped into a mysterious power.

It seems benign and magical at first, as glowing letters in the auditorium signage guide Eliza to correct spellings. As a bonus, her father starts showering her with the attention he’d been giving the firstborn, Aaron (Max Minghella).

Saul is convinced there’s something divine in his previously ordinary daughter. As time goes on and Eliza glides through several bees, Saul starts teaching her some of the lessons of the Kabbalah.

The apparent discovery of a prodigy in his own family fills Saul with a pride and passion that goes beyond nachas. But there are consequences: Aaron, feeling deprived of his father’s attention, is lured by a non-Jewish goddess (Kate Bosworth) into checking out a Hare Krishna house.

Where is Saul’s wife and Eliza’s mother through all this? Miriam (Juliette Binoche), who adopted her husband’s religion when they married, has an obsessive ritual that she hides from her family. She’s engaged in this activity for a long time, but now it gets out of control.

“Bee Season” is the inverse of “The Ice Storm” and other stories about upscale suburban families where narcissistic parents pursue careers and affairs and the teenagers are left to their own stoned devices. The Naumanns have dinner together every night — or they did, until Eliza’s gift (and her competition schedule) broke up the routine. The Naumanns don’t suffer from unhappiness and selfishness, but self-satisfaction and complacency.

With Aaron and Miriam in their own orbits while Saul and Eliza ride her winning streak to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., “Bee Season” has a fragmented, diffused structure. The filmmakers, who met in the Bay Area 17 years ago, also favor methodical pacing and a detached air that worked in their previous films (“Suture” and “The Deep End”) but keeps us from warming up to the Naumanns until much too late.

Perhaps most critically, despite some special effects the film is unsuccessful in evoking the sense of magic and mystery that give the book its power.

Whether Eliza blames herself for her family’s upheaval, as children often do, is open to discussion. What’s clear is that Eliza takes the only action she can to begin to fix what’s broken. It’s her form of tikkun olam.

“Bee Season” opens Nov. 11 around the Bay Area.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.