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BEE SEASON

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross, Max Minghella, Kate Bosworth
Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, Full Screen 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 104 Minutes
Release Date: April 4, 2006

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Film ***1/2

Bee Season has the illustration of a simple story involving of a young spelling bee champion wise beyond her years, but thereís a lot more lurking under the filmís surface. Itís perhaps one of the most complex and powerfully dramatic family dramas Iíve seen in recent years. The story of a family struggling to pull together is similar in effect to that of Ordinary People.

Based on the acclaimed novel by Myla Goldberg, the movie centers around 12 year old Eliza (played by Flora Cross in one of the best performances ever by a young actress), who is well on her way to becoming the youngest national spelling bee champion of all time. Itís an achievement which triggers high spirits for her family. However, at the same time, itís also what will end up triggering a downward spiral.

Elizaís father, Saul (Richard Gere), is a professor of Jewish theology at Berkeley. Heís long been deeply involved in his work instead of focusing attention at home. His wife, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), finds herself frequently at an emotional distance as a result. In addition his oldest son, Aaron (Max Minghella), is slowly feeling neglected by both parents.

But itís Elizaís success with the spelling bee that triggers Saul to take a vast interest in her. He resorts to teaching her extensively about the Kabbalah while preparing for each spelling challenge. One of the beliefs of the Kabbalah is the theory that words not only reflect reality, but create it as well.

This theology ties directly into Elizaís technique for spelling. When asked to spell a word, she closes her eyes and sees the word materialize right in front her. Itís sort of a unique visionary talent that she has been blessed with, and the way the film illustrates her talent is simply beautiful.

But it soon becomes clear that numerous secrets from within the family are brought to light. Miriam begins to spiral into a deep depression, one that is linked to events in the past. It causes a secret of hers to be exposed to her husband that he wouldíve never guessed in a million years.

And Aaron finds himself wanting to distance himself from his fatherís theology, since he feels that he is using Elizaís achievements as a way to expose his success at fathering such a prodigy. He rebels in a big way. Upon meeting a girl named Chali (Kate Bosworth) whose religion is Hare Krishnans, Aaron is quite tempted to convert.

So here we have a film that is simultaneously fascinating and emotionally gripping. Iím a Christian, but am always intrigued by learning as much as I can of other religions. The connection between the ways of the Kabbalah and the creation of words is something I had no knowledge of. I think anyone of any religion will be immensely fascinated by such a process. If anything, the film has convinced me that such a process is as real as anything.

And the performances are undeniably terrific. Richard Gere delivers some of his best work here as a controlling father who really doesnít know how much of a controlling force he is. Juliette Binoche delivers a character that will break your heart in unexpected ways. And Max Minghella, son of director Anthony, is wholly impressive in his acting debut.

But itís young Flora Cross, also making her acting debut, who carries the weight of the film with her astonishing performance. She gives so much of a non-traditional child performance that you almost have to pinch yourself just to see who youíre watching on the screen. One things for sure, Dakota Fanning isnít the only young actress wise beyond her years.

Bee Season is a complicated drama, but a gripping one nonetheless. Itís a film that manages to juggle its story angles with a nice ease and all around balance. And, as mentioned earlier, the theme of the film regarding the creation of words is purely fascinating.

Video ****

Foxís stunning anamorphic presentation does absolute justice to the film visually. It contains many visually endearing moments, especially the scenes where Eliza spells her words. The image quality is thoroughly clear and crisp, and colors are a definite bonus. The two sided disc contains the full screen version as well, but youíll want to flip the disc over for the real visual impact.

Audio ***1/2

I was indeed surprised by how well rendered the sound format was for such a dialogue driven film. The 5.1 mix works astonishingly well in exactly the same moments where the video quality shines. The spelling sequences allow some good surround sound effect to develop. Several technical tricks with the sound also allow some nice sound playback in other scenes as well. Surprisingly good all the way.

Features ***1/2

I was also impressed by how much Fox was able to store on this two sided release. Usually in this type of DVD release, there isnít too much room to spare. However, there is a good list of extras this time around, despite the fact that youíll have to flip the disc to see everything. Included are two commentary tracks, one with directors Scott McGhee and David Siegel, the second with producer Albert Berger and screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal. Also features are six deleted scenes with optional commentary, a making of featurette, "The Cutting Room Floor" featurette and "The Essence of Bee Season" featurette and the Original Theatrical Trailer.

Summary:

Bee Season wasnít exactly what I expected it to be like, but it turned out to be a much deeper and thought-provoking drama, as well as an observant family drama. Performances are strong and the story is unique and effective. Highly recommended indeed!

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