(PG-13) 4.5 Stars

Paul F. P. Pogue

Haunting and lyrical, Bee Season is ostensibly about the young Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) on her way to the national spelling bee, but that shell hides a complex, unsettling and thought-provoking exploration of mysticism and family dysfunction.

The story follows the disparate paths of the Naumann family and their desperate attempts to cling to spiritual connections even as they lose touch with each other. Saul (a nicely understated Richard Gere) is a college professor specializing in Jewish mysticism, particularly Kabbalah and the concept of Tikkun Olam - the repairing of the universe. (That a film would even bring up Tikkun Olam, let alone base its entire premise around it, is remarkable in itself.)

And indeed, each member of his family is seeking their own reparation. Miriam (Juliette Binoche) is clinging to sanity as she tries and fails to deal with decades-old trauma, and Aaron (Max Minghella) is a teen-ager trying to get his father's attention any way he can.

At the center of it all is the memorable Cross, who succeeds in her film debut at being preternaturally mature and 11 years old at the same time. With this performance she jumps past Dakota Fanning and Haley Osment in the unnervingly-poised child actor category. Eliza is a fully realized character, never forced or pretentious, who pays close attention to the world around her. She uses the same intuitive leaps that make her a remarkable spelling champ and applies them to her family, intending to repair her own shattered world through sheer willpower. Tikkun Olam.

The end of the movie is one that has audiences at odds over its meaning and whether it is breathtaking genius or cloying sentimentality. I won't spoil it here, except to note that to truly understand it requires the same intuition shown by the characters: the willingness to close one's eyes and let the truth flow. In certain Muslim mystical traditions, weavers would always leave one flaw in an otherwise perfect tapestry because to create absolute perfection would mean to be like God, which is in itself a crime of arrogance. I wonder if the filmmakers had this in mind when they crafted the final minutes.

Bee Season is about the search to commune with a higher force, and the bonds or lack thereof we share with those around us, the expression of perfection in a world that does not necessarily need to be perfect, and ultimately the sometimes heartbreaking burden of being extraordinary.

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