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Bee Season

Adapted from Myla Goldberg's richly complex debut novel, this is a far-better film than one would dare hope for from a major studio, which is not to say it's a great one. But directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel's (SUTURE, DEEP END) unwillingness to dumb down the story of one troubled family's search for the divine is truly inspiring. Ten-year-old fifth-grader Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) isn't particularly unusual, except in one respect: Unbeknownst to the rest of her family, she can spell with astonishing skill. Eliza's vocabulary isn't especially extensive, but when she closes her eyes and meditates on the word at hand, letters begin to appear before her eyes. Her father, Berkeley religion professor Saul Naumann (Richard Gere), is stunned as he watches Eliza trounce the competition at a Bay Area spelling bee, and suspects that Eliza shares the mystical ability to approach the divine by meditating on words and letters, an ability that Jewish scholars have written about for millennia. Saul himself has written extensively on the esoteric teachings of 13th-century kabbalist Abraham Abulafia, and as he trains Eliza for the upcoming National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., Saul also begins introducing techniques he thinks will lead his daughter into the transcendent state of shefa, during which it's said the adept can speak directly into the ear of God. Displaced from his father's attentions, Eliza's 17-year-old brother, Aaron (Max Minghella), also hopes for a more direct experience of God, but turns his back on his father's synagogue when a beautiful stranger (Kate Bosworth) introduces him to a less-orthodox house of worship: a Hare Krishna temple. Preoccupied by their mystical pursuits, no one notices Mrs. Naumann's (Juliette Binoche) increasingly strange behavior; she's surrendered to a compulsion to break into strangers' homes and steal a single, seemingly worthless knickknack. She, too, is on a spiritual mission, and in her own bizarre way is also trying to reestablish a connection with God that was shattered so long ago. Screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (Jake and Maggie's mom) remains remarkably faithful to the soul of Goldberg's ambitious book, even though the film bleaches out much of what gave the novel such color: the Naumanns' Jewishness. But Gere represents an unforgivable piece of miscasting; he's about as convincing a kabbalistic scholar as Madonna.