Based on Myla Goldberg's breakout novel, Bee Season follows a Jewish family whose dysfunction could only stem from the roots of intellectual overstimulation. The professor dad, Saul (Richard Gere), is immersed in religious studies research; the mom, Miriam (Juliette Binoche, still sexy), is immersed in her laboratory work; and the son, Aaron (Max Minghella), is immersed in religions—especially ones that conflict with his father's Judaism. In the midst of all this, poor 11-year-old Eliza (Flora Cross) is swept to the side, left to self-motivate and enter and win her school's spelling bee. From there, she sets out to win her way straight to the nationals.
But Eliza is so good at spelling there's no doubt she's going to kick everyone's ass, so the spelling-bee element of the film quickly becomes an afterthought. Instead, the film's focus is the impact that her pursuit has on the family dynamic. Saul becomes ecstatic, joining his daughter's quest on a spiritual level and doing vaguely mystical exercises with her that merge Kabbalah teachings with spelling aptitude (and make zero sense at all). Increasingly obsessed, Saul tunes out what really matters: Miriam, a one-time Christian who converted to be with him, is going a bit nutso. Also, his son is becoming a Hare Krishna.
Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel are clearly interested in exploring the complicated religious-cultural roots of a very intelligent family, which is certainly primo fodder for something watchable. But the problem is that the stakes aren't high enough. Gere's Saul seems distant, sure, but he also seems like a nice, gentle guy who loves his wife and kids. We see Saul as a scholar of faith, but as a practitioner, he doesn't seem nearly devout or overbearing enough to make his wife and son's respective spiritual crises seem creditable. And, chugging away behind it all are the beautifully shot, achingly scored, utterly bland spelling bee sequences; the fuel for a car that's driving nowhere fast.