‘Bee Season’ examines family’s quest for something more
November 23, 2005
Miriam Nauman, Juliette Binoche’s progressively disintegrating character in “Bee Season,” doesn’t say much. Her tumble into psychosis is of the quiet, secretive variety. Indeed, evidence of her failing mind is largely in her absence: She begins coming home to the family’s plush home in Oakland, Calif., later and later, and she has less and less to say to her husband (Richard Gere) and two children about her leave-taking.
“Juliette in particular – there is so much in her face,” said Scott McGehee, who co-directed “Bee Season” with his regular filmmaking partner, David Siegel. “She managed to communicate a complicated feeling. You feel watching her that there is something more than what’s on the surface.”
“Bee Season” stars, from left, Max Minghella, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross and Richard Gere as members of the Nauman family.
“From the get-go, that’s something we wanted to explore – what’s in their imaginations, their histories, their relationships with one another, without having to expressly state it,” said Siegel, who has written and directed two previous films with McGehee, the thrillers “The Deep End” and “Suture.”
The same might be said for the film itself. The screenplay by Noami Foner Gyllenhaal (mother of actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal) cuts the plot of Myla Goldberg’s 2001 novel down to the bone. There are virtually no twists in the central story, of 9-year-old Eliza Nauman (Flora Cross, in a performance as still and nuanced as Binoche’s) making her way to the finals of the national spelling bee. The side narratives are not so much about conflict and overt action as they are about character revelation.
But beneath that surface of storyline, McGehee and Siegel create, as they did in 2001’s equally memorable “The Deep End,” a palpable mood. The distinct air of domestic tension in the Nauman house is built not through devastating occurrences or withering argument, but with music, dark lighting, performances. The recurring visual technique of glass, broken or breaking, contributes not only to the mood, but to the film’s exploration of family fragility. It is sensory-rich filmmaking that allows much to be said beyond words and plot.
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“Those things are super important to us,” said Siegel, who, with McGehee, participated in an Aspen Shortsfest panel discussion in 2003. “We think a lot about the way the world is detailed, what the sound feels like, what the music is going to be doing. I hesitate to say it, but we like the classic tradition of melodramatic cinema, of trying to create the music and drama of the world.”
“Bee Season,” which had its world premiere this year’s at the Telluride Film Festival, showed in Aspen in October as part of Aspen Filmfest 2005. The film is now seeing limited release and is showing at the Stage 3 Theatres in Aspen.
That emphasis on what lies underneath is echoed in the film’s theme of secret desires, and its concern with matters of the spirit. As Eliza demonstrates abilities no one suspected, her father Saul, a religious professor with a taste for Jewish mysticism, gets to test out some of his stranger religious theories on her. Meanwhile, teenager Aaron (Max Minghella, the son of filmmaker Anthony Minghella, in his debut performance), perhaps stung by the shifting of his father’s attention, begins sneaking away to attend Hare Krishna observances. And Miriam, haunted by the long-ago accident that killed her parents, has become practically a ghost presence in the home, lost in some solitary pursuit. Yet, for all of their wanderings, and the distance they put between themselves, all of the Naumans are in search of a connection to something meaningful.
“The movie is the story of four people trying to tap into a reservoir of something greater than themselves, a spiritual well,” said Siegel.
The question remains, then, of how productive their individual quests are. (A subtext of “Bee Season” might be that the family that quests apart, stays apart.) Saul is too self-centered in everything he does to realize that his devotion to Eliza and her spelling bees have alienated not only the child he ignores, Aaron, but is bewildering to Eliza herself. Saul has managed even to find a way to make cooking for the family a narcissistic endeavor.
Aaron’s disappearances wear not only on Saul, but on Eliza, too, with whom he is especially close. At least he has the blinders of teen-hood to blame for his spiritual inquiries. And if that were not sufficient excuse, he can always chalk it up to raging hormones; his interest in Krishna is fueled by a hot young girl, Chali (Kate Bosworth). But grown-up Miriam is the most troubled of all, her trips out into various neighborhoods in the middle of the night crossing the line into the criminal.
All of which rests the responsibility for family stability on unassuming Eliza. In a more obvious story, the family would rally around Eliza as she marches through local, regional and state competitions, and Eliza would gain confidence, and flower as she progresses. But as with Goldberg in her novel, McGehee and Siegel are looking to answer to a higher calling themselves. Eliza doesn’t win at the nationals, but finds a more conventional way of providing succor to her family members. She throws the championship, a conclusion that leaves audiences to wonder for themselves what is happening in her mind and spirit.
“There’s a lot going on at the end of the movie,” said Siegel, who works in tandem with McGehee on most aspects of their films, rather than dividing tasks between them. “Why Eliza throws the bee, what Miriam is reacting to, what does the rapprochement between Aaron and Saul mean?
“We hope what people are feeling comes from the gesture this little girl makes for her family. It comes from some enlightened position. We hope the ending feels like redemption for the family, coming through Eliza. And we hope people ascribe meaning to it, and bring their own personal experiences to it.”
At the close of “Bee Season,” Eliza smiles, perhaps for the first time in the film. It’s not that she has figured out that, in some way, losing the spelling bee is the key to her family’s woes. But through a combination of the mystical and simple good intentions, she seems to have been granted insight, that just making a gesture toward her family is all that’s required. That smile is mysterious and satisfying; McGehee calls it “a Mona Lisa smile.”
“I like the idea of Eliza’s voice-over at that moment: ‘My father taught me I could reach the ear of God,'” said Siegel. “She has achieved a kind of consciousness where she believes making this gesture will have some kind of redemptive value. It’s some fundamental human thing like love.”
“I like to think, in the broadest way, this is about communication,” said McGehee. “How do we connect with something outside of ourselves – a spiritual yearning, or other people. All the strands come to that broad theme.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org