Myla Goldberg's 2000 novel Bee Season may have been a lyrical and transcendent piece of work about people searching for spiritual meaning in a disconnected modern world, but the new film adaptation, which changes a number of details, is only a pretender to such a description. Directors McGehee and Siegel, whose last film, 2001's The Deep End, was awash in overwrought symbolism, bring a similarly pretentious and heavy-handed sensibility to this version of the story, giving us characters who spend all of their time looking for the divine but very little time acting like real people.
The title refers to the spelling prowess of young Eliza Naumann (Cross), who surprises her family by becoming a spelling champion with prospects in state and national bees. Her college professor father Saul (Gere), who teaches religious studies, takes an inordinate interest in her efforts, even envisioning that her meditative method of concentration might help her reach a spiritual plane he's failed to achieve.
The spelling obsession reveals cracks in the whole family, as Eliza's mom Miriam (Binoche) succumbs to her long-simmering kleptomania, and her brother Aaron (Minghella) secretly joins the Hare Krishnas. All of the activities—spelling, stealing, religious conversion—play out as deeply spiritual experiences, or at least that's the way McGehee and Siegel want them to seem. But in trying to make every moment significant, they lose any character development. Never do we understand what drove these people to the brink in the first place, nor do we really see what it is they're looking for.
It's in the mundane moments that the characters come alive, and the relationship between Eliza and Aaron has a nice, lived-in feel. But McGehee and Siegel have never met a mundane event they couldn't turn into an epiphany. Bee Season tries too hard to convince the audience of its own mystical depth instead of contenting itself with telling a good story. There's more insight into how spelling can represent a search for something beyond the self in the documentary Spellbound; it's also far more entertaining.