Judaism and parental ambition have been inextricable since the early days — the really early days, back to when old Jacob let his hopes get too high for poor Joseph. (Had Ivy League law schools existed back then, one can only imagine the arguments.) Immigrant tenacity, a tradition of literacy and just plain genetic stubbornness have ensured that no story of a Jewish family goes by without someone cracking from over-ambition or underachievement.
It’s a legacy kept alive in “Bee Season,” the elliptical new film based on Myla Goldberg’s 2000 novel — except in ways rarely seen on the American screen. For a film so firmly rooted in the canon of the Jewish family drama, it’s refreshing how much isn’t there: the “Crossing Delancey”-esque, what-are-you-doing-to-me-oy-vey-ism (as currently overflows in Ben Younger’s “Prime”), or the easy condemnation of a Todd Solondz movie, in which Jewish parents are so thoroughly overbearing that the only escape is, well, escape.
“Bee Season” opens at the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., where a sweet but possibly possessed sixth-grader named Eliza Naumann finds herself in the finals. Right away the film spills with possibility: Could there be, really, a more perfect symbol of the secular Jewish religion of parental striving than a televised spelling competition? In an auditorium freighted with hope, Eliza’s father, Saul (played by a surprisingly rabbinical Richard Gere, in a turn likely to delight any Jewish kid who grew up with “American Gigolo” and “Pretty Woman”), watches his daughter proudly but intently, his eyes jumping and dropping with each letter. Onstage Eliza spells slowly, unsure whether she is doing this for herself or for him, unsure of even her right or ability to ask the question.
She has plenty of reason to wonder, though. An owlish Berkeley religion professor, Saul presides over his Oakland, Calif., home with a warm but peremptory air; he’s the kind of parent who’s always trying a little too hard to connect with the kids. As the film flashes back from the spelling bee to tell us how Eliza got there, it’s clear the Naumanns have it pretty good. Saul and wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche, playing an even dreamier lost soul than she did in “The English Patient”) have an easy rapport. Their daughter is quiet and untroubled, give or take the occasional bout of clairvoyance. (Flora Cross plays Eliza, and it’s hard to recall an actor whose physical appearance — enormous eyes, pale skin, cleft chin — so dovetails with the requirements of her character, a mystical empty vessel.) Their son, Aaron, has gone deep into his teenage years unbothered by the pangs of adolescence; he plays a large classical instrument and borrows his father’s Brodsky volumes. The film goes out of its way to remind us that Saul is the family chef. The Naumanns are the latest cinematic family to live in a state of Northern California bliss — a state, in other words, of Jewish suburban perfection.
Of course, the idyll can’t last. Eliza’s mounting success in the spelling bee gives Saul the idea of teaching his daughter Kabbalah. It’s one of the film’s pleasing ambiguities that directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee withhold his motive: Does he believe mysticism will help her win, or is he, more creepily, after some kind of holy child? As Saul begins an aggressive campaign to mold Eliza into his star pupil, his son’s disenchantment grows — again, for reasons that are appealingly unclear: Is Aaron awakening to his father’s inflexibility, or resentful that his sister has come to
occupy a role he once held, unchallenged? Aaron begins bristling at Saul’s professorial Judaism. After a flirtation with Catholicism, he discovers a cute co-ed and, through her, embraces Hare Krishna.
Meanwhile, the matriarch, Miriam, has taken to burgling people’s homes to steal bits of crystal, a poetic-religious act possibly inspired by Saul’s constant rattling on about heavenly shards — in what is surely the first act of kabbalistic kleptomania ever captured on film. (Warning: Unless you’ve read Goldberg’s book, exactly what Miriam is doing may have you puzzled for a while. This is not one of those pleasing ambiguities.)
When the family isn’t coming apart, Siegel and McGehee fill the screen with holy pageantry. They gleefully frame shots of Krishna and kabbalistic transcendence, the latter as imagined by a shrewd FX crew (though, curiously, with no synagogue). At first the spiritual candor feels admirable in a Hollywood production, but soon it turns to mishmash, and the movie becomes a film about religion, capital R, that doesn’t have much to say about spirituality at all. (Mel Gibson, anyone?) Judaism becomes a mess of Al Gore-minded tikkun olam and perplexing acts of meditation. Krishna consists of some vague stuff about people jumping up and down, and Catholicism is a big room in which wafers are served. One could imagine Aaron’s circumstances reversed — a Hare Krishna child discovers Judaism! — with no noticeable change in result.
And yet the individual acts of faith here matter less than their effects. The film’s concerns are social, not ideological, and its power lies in showing how religion can be thrown around like a dart by leverage-seeking members of a family. When Aaron spits out the inevitable “You can’t tell me what to do anymore” rant at his father, the two are standing not in front of a frat party or other teenage flashpoint but inside their home, with Aaron in a Krishna robe, having just been removed forcibly from a temple by Saul.
If theology elevates the stakes beyond those normal for a family drama, it’s for good reason. Even more than its source novel, this is a film preoccupied with the thin line between tutelage and obsessiveness (or, for the pupil, between studiousness and zeal) and with the dangerous consequences of crossing that line. After all, Miriam’s pathology stems not from disaffection with her husband but from paying too much attention to him. And Aaron gives Saul a screw-you not by choosing no religion at all but by choosing a different religion. Even when they’re tuning out, they’re listening closely.
The greatest victim in all this may be Eliza, whom Saul’s pushy mysticism literally may be leading down the path to madness. After Eliza endures a Kabbalah-induced seizure, the dominoes are lined up for a cautionary tale. But the film is too nuanced for this and instead peels off to a more open-ended place. Even while rebuking the pushy Jewish parent, it refuses to endorse the opposite — the rebellious child — refuses, really, to take sides in this impossible argument. The climax may strike some viewers as unsatisfying, but it also feels truer to the spirit of how most of us live the Jewish parent-child drama: hand to mouth, with no great judicial showdown, just a desire to get past one moment and on to the next.