The breakdown of families is a pretty familiar genre, a subsection of films that often features endings meant to warm the heart. Yet “Bee Season,” which follows a father who can’t quite connect with his family, deviates from the norm. Too distant and cold, the movie has no effect on the heartstrings whatsoever.

Based on Myla Goldberg’s novel, “Bee Season” focuses on the Naumann family. While they might seem comfortable on the surface, there’s plenty going on under the surface. Daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) finally captures the attention of her father, Saul (Richard Gere); once she becomes a spelling-bee champion, he shuns the rest of his family. It couldn’t come at a worse time; his emotionally scarred wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche, “Chocolat”) hides a dark secret, and his frustrated son Aaron (Max Minghella) joins the Hare Krishnas. As Eliza makes her way through major spelling championships, the family’s secrets are revealed.

“Bee Season” has many ambitious ideas, so it’s unfortunate that directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“The Deep End”) don’t handle them with more care. While they capture the emotional isolation of the characters, the film’s theological elements never quite mesh. Religious beliefs are a driving background force in the story, but their ultimate meanings to the characters are covered too broadly.

Visually, the film is quite stylized, particularly the spelling sequences. When Eliza closes her eyes and opens her mouth, her imagination – or, arguably, something spiritual – takes over. Pollen floats around her when she spells the word “dandelion”; later, a bird turns into folded paper when she spells “origami.” While cute, the computer-animated wizardry feels out of place in what’s primarily a human story.

Also problematic is the grand finale. While it gives some closure for its young protagonist, it’s too open-ended as far the rest of the family is concerned. This might be intentional, but it’s also frustrating; much of the conflict comes to a head in the final 30 minutes. The film’s bookend – Eliza’s narration – comes off equal parts cheesy and manipulative.

Still, the young actors do a fantastic job and run circles around their seasoned adult counterparts. Newcomer Cross is the real find; while she lacks the wide-eyed precociousness of contemporary Dakota Fanning, Cross hones in on her character’s complex emotions well. Minghella also does a superb job, capturing religious confusion mixed with the usual teen angst. When it comes to the veterans, though, Gere is bland and fairly one note, and Binoche doesn’t really say much of anything.

Given the promise that directors McGehee and Siegel have shown in the past, “Bee Season” is a letdown. If the conflicts and underlying religious themes had been artfully balanced, this might have been a more emotionally welcoming movie. Clearly, there’s one season that this film is bound to miss: Oscar season.

 

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars

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