Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) is an 11-year-old spelling prodigy in "Bee Season," a film based on Myla Goldberg's bestseller. For Eliza, the letters that make up words are tactile things - talismans. Her father, Saul Naumann (Richard Gere), a religious-studies professor at Berkeley, believes she communicates with God according to the precepts of Kabbalah, which hold that the alphabet contains the secrets of the universe.
As Eliza advances to the National Spelling Bee championship, her family life unravels: Her scientist mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) becomes unhinged; her teenage brother Aaron (Max Minghella), once their father's favorite, rebels from Judaism by covertly joining the Hare Krishnas. Pound for pound, the Naumanns are just about as miserable and dysfunctional as the Tyrones in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," though not nearly as entertaining.
Saul is such a control freak that he has lost all sight of what he is controlling. He doesn't even register Aaron's rage, or that Eliza, for all her precociousness, is practically catatonic. Saul is blinded by his messianism. It is only when he is forced by the police to confront his wife's mental illness, or when he discovers his son's secret life, that he awakens to the sad carnival that surrounds him.
In "Bee Season," directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel from a script by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, the idyllic Northern California locale is an ironic backdrop for the mayhem. So is the picture-perfect aura that the Naumanns radiate. At its best, in Aaron's scenes with a pretty blond Hare Krishna recruiter (the talented Kate Bosworth), or in the moments when he strikes out at his father, "Bee Season" gets at the ways in which children can be irrevocably wounded by neglect.
I wish the casting overall had been sharper, though. Minghella is wonderful; he has the ability to look ravaged and beseeching at the same time. But Gere is not believable as a Kabbalist professor. Saul is fully stocked with inner demons but, as is often the case with Gere, he seems to draw all his energies from the surface.
Binoche's swanky swoon is so ethereal that she practically wafts off the screen. And Cross, who has never acted professionally in a movie before, lacks expressiveness.
I could also have done with a lot less visual mumbo-jumbo, typified by the floating fuzz we see when Eliza spells dandelion. These flaws are not fatal because "Bee Season," at its core, is about something powerful: The ways in which family members wreak destruction on each other with the best of intentions. Grade: B
• Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language.