The bee's knees it ain't. Screenwriter and art-star mother Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (Running on Empty, and does she ever) and directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, off which they've fallen) have turned Myla Goldberg's smash 2000 novel into a story that perfectly fulfills Appelo's First Law of Aesthetodynamics: Aim for the stars, and your arrow comes down on your foot. Blessed with tony art direction and cinematography glossy as car-commercial porn, it fools you at first into thinking it's going to be a high-class, high-IQ enterprise.
The child star is a major find: Flora Cross as Eliza, a grave young lady with a manner as deep as the pronounced dimple in her chin. As if by supernatural possession, Eliza is overtaken by a shocking gift for spelling bees. This upsets her whole family dynamic. Her pushy Berkeley prof dad, Saul (Richard Gere), has been ignoring both her and his sensitive, dishy wife (Juliette Binoche, whom age doth not wither). Instead he concentrates his considerable ambition on his brainy teenage son, Aaron (Max Minghella, director Anthony Minghella's no doubt also brainy son).
Saul plays music duets with Aaron somewhat in the egomaniacal manner of Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata and is forever kibitzing Aaron's Hebrew-school lessons, because he's a professor of the Kabbalah, which, according to Bee Season, teaches that God's light has been put into vessels that have been smashed to pieces, and it's up to us to put the world back together again by studying the mystical implications of Scripture, often by meditating on individual Hebrew letters in a tranced-out frame of mind.
Eliza's uncanny ability to spell hard words grabs Saul's attention because it's literally uncanny—she doesn't rationally spell out the word; she closes her big, mournful eyes and visualizes the letters, which float and swirl around the screen in nifty, pretty CGI. Or, if it's a word for a plant, tendrils curl out of her clothing. Such a deal! Saul's got an overachiever and a Kabbalah bubbeleh in one kid! Who needs Aaron with his silly cello and his homely homiletic Hebrew scholarship? Saul's found the gal who can put it all together!
But it all falls apart. Glum, spurned Aaron improbably gets picked up in a park by a chaste cockteaser (Kate Bosworth) who recruits him for Hare Krishna. Eliza makes it to the state spelling bee finals. Her mom wanders more zombielike than Hare Krishnas, having flashbacks to a personal trauma and snatching earrings from empty houses. I won't spoil the revelation, but there proves to be not much method to her madness.
Each family member experiences arbitrary events. Their lives barely connect. The four subplots fail to converge, or even resolve individually. The fragments of Bee Season are shiny in technical terms, but they shed zero aesthetic or intellectual light. (PG-13)