One of the rarest beasts in the celluloid kingdom is the two-director film. I don't mean films with co-directors; I'm talking about two names under that "directed by" credit. It happened earlier this year with Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's relentless Sin City, which couldn't be farther from the style or subject matter than Scott McGehee and David Siegel's Bee Season.
We see a helicopter bring a large metal statue of the letter A over a west coast bridge. Watching intently, young Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross), her brother and her parents drive to colleges and jobs. They each have their own lives and secrets that we can't even fathom yet. Eliza's secret is that she's an expert speller, able to close her eyes and harness a power to see the letters come alive around her. After winning her school's spelling bee, she attempts to tell her father, Saul (Richard Gere), but he doesn't notice, not until she wins the next round and gets her name in the paper, which turns Saul's attention away from his son, Aaron (Max Minghella), and towards his daughter's strange talent.
This should not be taken as snubbing, because as a character, Saul is unlike any coaching father we have seen. He is persistent but never forceful, compelled but never obsessed. But his son and his wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) see it as slowly drawing away, which he and Miriam have been doing for some time already. Saul teaches Eliza the spirituality of words through Kabbalah and tells her that she is channeling, connecting to god as she spells. Richard Gere, in easily his best performance since Robert Altman's severely underrated Dr. T and the Women, finds the decency and complex ideals in Saul by playing him calm and shedding all the overdone charm that plagued him in Chicago and Shall We Dance? When he discovers his wife's kleptomania, which Binoche handles with expert feeling, he stands in awe of her room of stolen artifacts which she collected to try to find a god that Saul wants to believe in more than anything.
All this leaves time for Aaron to become a Hare Krishna, and for Eliza to continue to dominate at the Spelling Bees, leading to the nationals that ends the film. Like Franny Glass trying to find the way of the pilgrim, Eliza tries to understand the mystery and importance of words in the spiritual world. She repeats words, noises, and sounds in the hope of connecting to a light that Saul says represents the connecting of the shards within us. Naomi Foner's script does a little too much with the religious aspects of the film, but it ultimately is deft at tuning itself into the ideas of each family member finding their own "light." Each character gradually grows on screen without any shortcutting of story. And while Gere, Binoche, and Minghella all put forward strong, detailed performances, it's ultimately Flora Cross who steals the show with unearthly maturity and grace. While most kid actors make maturity seem weird and comical, Cross blends it richly into the character of Eliza, steadying her as the family's center stronghold.
Siegel and McGehee give the film a deep emotional punch that never stoops to melodrama or sitcom clichés. The film holds a subtle magic in its dramatic poetics, and while the film is directed by two men, it seems like they've found a great dynamic that comes out the same as if only one great director had directed it. This is their second film together, following 2001's solid The Deep End. However thrilling and superbly paced that film was, it holds little to the poignant mystery and beauty of Bee Season. Of all the small things the two films share, the most prominent is the honesty that both films exude while talking about the power of family bonds and the peculiar situations that arise from them.
Now try to spell Kabbalah.