Bee Season: Mixing Family Dynamics with the Kabbalah

At the heart of Bee Season lies a powerful thread of a modern Jewish-American family: The yearning for perfection. One the surface, the Naumann upper-middle class family appears to be ideal. Its highly accomplished, deeply spiritual, and tightly knit. Nonetheless, a closer look reveals that the picture-perfect family is in fact comprised of individuals on disparate paths toward their own transcendence in quests that lead them to pursue intensely dangerous spiritual experiences.

Co-directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the film is a screen adaptation of Myla Goldbergs critically acclaimed novel of the same name. The novel won many fans due to its unexpected mixture of rich themes, from the power of language to the elusiveness of communication, from the subtleties of parent-child relationships to the terrifying specter of family breakdown, from the consuming desires that plague adults to childrens ability to see their parents acts of desperation for what they are.

These intriguing themes captivated producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, whose recent films include such wide-ranging works as Anthony Minghellas Civil War love drama, Cold Mountain, and Alexander Paynes contemporary high-school satire, Election, both based on popular novels. We were attracted to Goldbergs novel, because it took such a fresh route to exploring what makes a family, says Berger. A lot of American films have tackled families falling apart before, but this story seemed to dive into a new terrain. Its rare to find a story that probes a familys inner dynamics so deeply and do so in accessible and gripping way with such unforgettable characters.

Goldbergs novel was inspired by an article she had read about the nerve-racking, hyper-competitive world of childrens spelling bees, coupled with her own fascination with family dynamics. The main challenge for the directors was how to translate to the big screen a highly internal tale in which much of the action and suspense take place inside the characters hearts and minds.

Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, whose husband Stephen is a director, and two children, Magie and Jake, are rising Hollywood stars, was brought for the screen adaptation, based on her previously demonstrated sensibility in probing high-tension family dynamics in such films as Running on Empty, which starred the late River Phoenix as a son of the family on the run, and Losing Isaiah, one of Hollywoods first adoption tale with Jessica Lange and Halle Berry.

To make the story more accessible, the filmmakers decided to shift the fathers profession from a temple cantor to a college professor of religious studies, and to move the storys suburban Pennsylvania location to an idyllic Northern California campus town like Berkeley. And Gyllenhaal says she opted to center her script on how families can become dangerous to all its members, parents and children. She explains: Bee Season is a scary story about how parents, even with the best intentions, can become too attached to their kids successes and their own dreams for their kids.

In the film, its the savant-like gift of nine-year-old Eliza (Flora Cross) for spelling that inspires her father Saul (Richard Gere) to take her under his wings and expose her to the mystical practices of the Kabbalah, an undertaking that brings the two of them closer together, but pushes away his wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) and their elder son Aaron (Max Minghella, son of the director Anthony Minghella), who embark on their own journeys of exploration.

Saul introduces Eliza to the thirteenth century Kabbalah practices of the scholar Abraham Abulafia, who collected exercises he believed would facilitate reaching a state of mystical connection called Shefa, or God-knowledge. In Abulafias philosophy, taking certain Hebrew words apart and reorganizing them into divine names could have profound spiritual effects. The Kabbalah places a special emphasis on probing the origins of the universe, the meaning of life, and the laws of cause and effect, and it does so through the importance if language. In Kabbalah, letters and words are not mere representations but also have an internal magical power and holiness about them.

However, like all spiritual quests, the Kabbalahs exercises are also rife with physical and metaphysical dangers. Ultimately, the closer Eliza gets to God, the closer she gets to losing herself and her family. Elizas unlikely emergence as the family star has the effect of tearing the fragile fabric that has thus fat held them together. Through the glare of approbation that her anomalous spelling genius has brought her, Eliza nonetheless discerns that its up to her to restore what has been shattered, a feat she accomplishes through an act that can be interpreted either as a reclaiming of her self (and a tacit rejection of Gods voice), or alternately, as a selfless channeling of Gods profound love.

Once used as a fun way to teach children how to write, spelling bees have evolved into a popular competitive event, with the annual National Spelling Bee now regularly airing on ESPN before a vast global audience. Known as the Olympics of Spelling, the national event offers a prize of $12,000 to the winner, who must be under the age of sixteen. Out of ten million kids who compete in local, state and regional spelling bees, about 250 of the very best make it to the final event, which evolves with all the drama, suspense, and exhilaration of a major sports championship. Spelling bees have started to filter into American popular culture through the award-winning documentary Spellbound, as well as a hit Broadway play, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which won two Tony Awards.

The co-directors hope that Bee Season would provoke, just as the novel did, a wide range of thoughts and feelings on subjects vital to modern life, from parenting to spiritual yearning to sibling competition and even mental illness. Says Gyllenhaal: I want this to be a movie from which people leave the theatre dying to talk about everything that happened, to ask questions of others about it, to debate the ideas in the story. I hope a lot of this comes out of the ending, which is strong and definitive but also purposely ambiguous.

McGehee and Siegels previous films, Suture and The Deep End, both of which played at the Sundance Film Festival, had also explored themes of identity, communication, and family sacrifice with a stylistic verve that pulled audiences into the emotional turmoil of their characters. Says McGehee: We have always been interested in stories that center around identity and the interior lives of characters, and we felt that Bee Season took an unusual look at these themes. Our film concerns four members of one family that reach out for God but ultimately find one another. We find that subject very appealing and cinematic too.