Saul (Richard Gere) is a religious studies professor who's striving for perfection but is also self-absorbed. He and his wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) have two young children, Aaron (Max Minghella) and Eliza (Flora Cross). When Eliza wins a school spelling competition, she's invited to a bee for students from area schools. Saul does not even notice the invitation letter Eliza puts under his door. On the day of the event, Eliza calmly asks her older brother to take her for a drive.
After she wins that event, Saul finds out and becomes obsessed with Eliza's spelling prowess, and with the competitions that culminate in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. He focuses so intently on Eliza that he ignores Miriam and Aaron. Increasingly resentful toward his father, Aaron rebels by investigating other religions. Further complicating the situation, Saul believes Eliza has a rare gift and begins to tutor her in the Kabbalah, a mystical approach to Jewish law that probes the meaning of life.
The four lead actors give strong performances and are extremely credible as a family unit. Binoche excels in the most intense characterization. In their first major film roles, Cross and Minghella are particularly impressive.
Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who previously made the thrillers "Suture" and "The Deep End," bring a visual imagination to "Bee Season," particularly when Eliza "sees" letters spelling the words she's given at the bees. While the film remains absorbing throughout, at times it seems overly-edited; a character's extreme behavior is abruptly dropped into the story; and, to the uninitiated, Eliza's practices in the Kabbalah are confusing. But the directors successfully build different kinds of tension than in their previous works -- the volatility of a family breaking apart as well as the pressure of competitive spelling. Starring Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross, Max Minghella and Kate Bosworth. Directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel. Written by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal. Produced by Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language. Running time: 104 min.