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'Bee Season' lacks definition

An 11-year-old girl stands on a stage spelling words. Placebo. Flux. Fluorescent. Possibility. With each word, she slips into a trance, an unnoticed ecstasy that approaches religious proportions. Is this the way, she wonders on the soundtrack, to reach the ear of God?

Clearly, this isn't ''Spellbound" or that Broadway spelling-bee musical. Rather, it's the big-screen adaptation of ''Bee Season," Myla Goldberg's 2000 best-selling novel about Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross), who spells her way to the national championships as her family falls to pieces. Religious transcendence is very much on the movie's mind, at times to the exclusion of sense.

But you, too, might have to take on faith a film that posits Richard Gere as Eliza's father, Saul Naumann: Berkeley religion professor, kabbalist adept, sexy kitchen wizard, and smothering patriarchal presence. Over the years this actor has become a beguiling silver fox, trickier than he seems, but he still doesn't have the psychic weight to pull off a role like Saul -- the kind of intellectual glory hog who gets his energy by sucking it out of those around him. Gere will never have boots that heavy. He's just too nice.

That central miscasting throws off the film's inner gyroscope. Saul is married to Miriam (Juliette Binoche), a scientist who's in the midst of a cryptic emotional crisis. Perhaps she has a lover, or perhaps she's mentally ill -- ''Bee Season" plays it extremely coy, which is at first intriguing and then a little frustrating.

The Naumann's teenage son, Aaron (Max Minghella, son of director Anthony Minghella), is a brooder, too, and he quietly rebels when Saul transfers his attentions to Eliza once the daughter's star potential is revealed. We see this nice Jewish boy entering a Catholic church, shopping for religions, and then a smiling blond shiksa named Chali approaches him in the park. She wears the saffron robes of a Hare Krishna and is played by Kate Bosworth; for Aaron, the combination is like a shot of heroin to the brain. And it'll enrage his father. Aaron is hooked.

But so is Saul, on the idea that his daughter may have a direct line to the core of the Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish mystical movement. Eliza goes somewhere far away when she spells, and co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (their last film was the remarkable matriarchal melodrama ''The Deep End") visualize her fugue states with digitally animated letters that whimsically coalesce and disperse around her head. It's a lovely cinematic conceit at first, and the grave, attentive Cross wears it well. As Saul excitedly coaches her in the meditative practices of an 18th century Kabbalist rabbi, the film outlines the gulf between pedagogy and mystery, between good spelling and bad parenting.

Fascinating stuff for a mainstream movie with big-name stars, so why does ''Bee Season" feel so unfocused? The film climaxes with Saul's discovery of both his son's and his wife's guilty secrets -- the latter, when we learn it, is as baffling to us as it is to him -- but you never get the sense that the character's chickens have come home to roost. In Gere's portrayal, Saul isn't a bullying intellectual like Jeff Daniels in ''The Squid and the Whale." He's a softer, more understandable brand of West Coast solipsist. Binoche's Miriam is right to be in tears of constant dismay -- there's no way she can compete with Saul, either for her children's affections or ours.

''Bee Season" has moments of ineffable grace -- I'm thinking of an origami dove that occasionally flits through the film -- and it has an almost fractal sense of the big picture that's welcome. One needs a solid foundation on which to build faith, though, whether in people or belief systems or movies. Here the foundation has been miscast. That's M-I-S-C-A-S-T.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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