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Bee Season (2005)


Old Jack is in a grump. I know you lot tolerate a general air of grumpiness – this is me doing funnies – but I’m actually annoyed. Linguistic Lynn, who is pedantic, overly crosswordy and called – shudder – Lynn, made me watch a film she sold as an insight into the Spelling Bee thing that hovers over American education. You don’t need wit in a land where you can spell stuff from the outer edges of the local dictionary. Adumbrate. Epistopic. Marmalade. See? Old Jack can do it too.

So, picture this. I’ve had a wretched morning of bag emptying and a socially ghastly interrogation about sex with a stoma. At the breakfast table, by Fucking Inappropriate Fanny, our latest inmate. Last in before the Lockdown, she’s made her presence felt by tapping Tinitus Tim in the head, rearranging Brain Cancer Bryan’s cravat and – well – asking me if I can have a happy wank with a bag of shit dangling off my body (“if I’m on my feathery tickle cushion,” I said, making the hideous woman drag her social skills to another table). Anyway. An hour passes and I’m settling into the TV room for a pleasing hour or so with the Duke (review to follow) when Lynn decides we simply have to watch a Richard Gere misery fest pretending to be a fun thing about spelling. It ain’t. In fact, on reflection, I’m not sure what it’s about beyond a man who thinks himself a terrific father instead controlling everyone in his family until they want to run screaming at a wall. Then I noticed Juliette Binoche was in it, so, okay, we watched Bee Season.

First off, it’s American, but clearly wants to be French. Not sure why, perhaps La Binoche outclassing everything and everyone in it, perhaps the leading kid having an air of French daze about her, perhaps the slip-slide of the plot and family emotions. Second off, that’s the really annoying part. The slip-slide. The film looks like a fun few hours of a girl finding her father’s respect by achieving something at school: winning the bees. I seem to remember a subplot in The Waltons hanging on the same thing: the ginger boy got the prize. In this film, Flora Cross as Eliza gets her brother to take her to a bee – and wins. We’ve seen she craves her Dad’s attention in the house (he disappears into his office to coach his boy, ignoring her), and the trick begins to work…so, no fun in the subtext…

Richard Gere as the Dad, Saul, is a middle-aged man of academic religion. He takes the esoterica of Jewish teaching terrifically seriously (hell, he lectures). Old Jack briefly enjoyed the history lesson as he educated his students, his son, his wife, his daughter…whilst reaching for an equal state of communication with his god. I think. Got a bit lost in the religious stuff, to be honest. But it definitely seems clear that Saul chokes the fun out of his family by mixing religion, competitiveness and control into a leaden atmosphere. Here’s a relatively rare challenge of middle age…

Anyhow, once Saul notices his daughter’s skills, he starts to coach her instead of the boy – Max Minghella as Aaron, who reacts by finding a buddhist-like sect through a chance encounter with Kate Bosworth. Perhaps old Jack is too base, but it feels like Aaron should be more obviously led by his teenage urges (Bosworth’s Chali has that heart-breaking thing going on) than intellectual alternatives – but that might spoil the film’s point.

The coaching gets freaky: Saul thinks Eliza has the potential to do the God-Chat one-on-one. It’s buried in her capacity to win the spelling bees in a delicate whirl of CGI: imaginary birds floating over letters as a preternatural mnemonic (which isn’t one of the words). Sometimes the graphics and music echo the meanings of the words, sometimes not. It’s all very ceremonial, Eliza methodically shutting her eyes to trigger the CGI when a tricky one comes up. Slowly. God, some of the spellings drag. At least The Waltons tore through the words: they had some moonshine to get from the Baldwin sisters.

So far so unhappy. Eliza sad and competitive; Saul prideful and controlling; Aaron so down he follows a stunning girl into a new religion without a whiff of a flirt. No way to live. And then there’s Juliette Binoche as Miriam. She’s been controlled the longest. And something in her breaks when Saul starts wrapping Eliza in his competing-is-everything attentions. Her agency, it transpires, is in sneaking into houses and…ok, no spoilers…building something in a marriage-long secret…

Binoche is terrific. In fact, so are Gere, Cross, Minghella and everyone in orange. But – gah – this is not about a family laughing and spelling together and being all triumphant. It’s a miserable story of a family ripped into shreds and breaking out of the father’s cage – the mother and the son in pieces, the daughter…well…young Eliza has an important moment on stage.

So, yeah, not what old Jack wanted, needed or expected on a sunny lockdown morn. If you know what you’re walking into, Bee Season may be an easier encounter. I felt what the family felt, gripped in a sense of misery under Linguistic Lynn’s disingenuous control.


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