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Bee Season

In the wake of 2002's terrific documentary Spellbound, those in charge of picking the Next Trendy Thing have latched onto the red-hot world of children's spelling bees. To be fair, Bee Season (2005) wasn't created out of whole cloth by a roomful of producers — it's based on the popular novel of the same name by Myla Goldberg. But with Spellbound, Bee Season, and 2006's Akeelah and the Bee hitting theaters in a rising wave, it's not a stretch to imagine a Disney series of spelling-bee flicks starring Raven-Symone and the mid-season premiere of Simon Cowell's "American Bee" are right around the corner. Here, Eliza Neumann (Flora Cross) is a spelling whiz, but her family is too preoccupied to notice. Her father Saul (Richard Gere), a religious-studies professor specializing in the Kabbalah, devotes the bulk of his attention to older son Aaron (Max Minghella), who's shown an interest in learning Hebrew. Eliza's mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) is a scientist with little time or, it seems, interest in developing a close bond with her children. As dysfunctional as their family appears to be, they've all settled into their fractured interrelationships and, for what it's worth, it seems to work for them — until Eliza wins a district-wide spelling bee and attracts her father's attention away from Aaron, throwing the entire delicate balance of the family unit into disarray. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, responsible for 2001's stylish but empty The Deep End, are blessed with an excellent cast in Bee Season, which helps considerably with the insanely complicated plot machinations that follow as each character's role in the family crumbles and they individually seek spiritual solace in unique directions. These are the sort of personal journeys that can be explored fully in a novel but are a lot tougher to portray in a 104-minute film — Saul makes a rather nutty connection between his daughter's success as a speller to his Kabbalah studies, Aaron ends up looking to Hare Krishnas for spiritual answers, and Miriam — a woman sublimating both a personal tragedy and competitive feelings about her own daughter — starts to go more than a little crazy. McGehee and Siegel face the same problems as directors here that plagued The Deep End — it's an interesting film with excellent, watchable acting (Gere and Cross are especially good), but the movie never resonates emotionally despite incessant string-pulling in an attempt to affect the viewer. Toward the end of the story, Miriam points out to Saul that he loves to talk, but only about impersonal subjects: "You talk and talk and talk and talk. Are they all empty words?" Sadly, the same can asked of this assured, interesting, but ultimately gloomy film that keeps the audience at an emotional distance.

Fox offers Bee Season as a double-sided DVD with a full-screen (1.33:1) transfer on Side One and an anamorphic widescreen transfer (2.35:1) on Side Two. Both are excellent, with gorgeous color and sharp contrast. The DD 5.1 audio is equally good, though there's not much need for bells and whistles here — this is a dialogue heavy film with the only interesting sound effects coming during scenes illustrating what goes on in Eliza's head mid-bee. Extras include two commentary tracks, one an  informative, detailed, and somewhat pretentious commentary by McGehee and Siegal (whose explanations of some scenes reveal them to be far more ambitious in the concept department than they're able to pull off on-screen) and the other a more background-focused track by producer Albert Berger and writer Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal on how they adapted the novel for the screen. Also on board is a "making-of" featurette (5 min.) plus "The Cutting Room Floor," a collection of random snippets set to music (4 min.), "The Essence of Bee Season," a discussion of the spiritual themes of the film (6 min.), and six deleted scenes with optional commentary. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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