Three films into their joint career, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel remain stealth auteurs, not immediately recognizable even to film buffs. Yet they showed a distinctive sense of style in their 1993 feature debut Suture and its 2001 follow-up The Deep End, both of which dealt with criminal guilt, family crises, and crippling emotional reserve. In their adaptation of Myla Goldberg's novel Bee Season, McGehee and Siegel find plenty of domestic trouble and tasteful, character-stifling décor, as well as a little crime. Flora Cross plays a pre-teen spelling-bee champion whose championship run coincides with her family's decay. The pedagogical impulses of her Kabbalah-obsessed academic father (Richard Gere) have inadvertently pushed away his kleptomaniac wife (Juliette Binoche) and their music-minded son (Max Minghella), who registers his disapproval with dad by dropping Judaism for the Hare Krishnas. Everyone in Bee Season is chasing spiritual peace and falling behind, and McGehee and Siegel catch them at their most worn-out and static.
That's probably why McGehee and Siegel aren't better known, truth be told. Goldberg's original story is spare but haunting, and here, rendered in the directors' typically bloodless manner, the gradual unraveling of decades-old relationships never seems more than theoretical. Whatever out-of-kilter passion drives Gere to study, Binoche to steal, Minghella to quest, and Cross to spell, none of it's evident in the film. McGehee and Siegel are too busy doing what they do best: making the commonplace seem unreal and charged with unexpected meaning. In Bee Season's best scenes, the mystical takes hold completely, as when Binoche becomes transfixed by knickknacks in the homes she breaks into, or when Cross drops into a spastic trance while deconstructing the alphabet with Gere. In the most impressive bit of visual magic, the directors illustrate the Kabbalistic theme of "making the broken whole" by showing letters floating through the air, to be plucked and arranged by Cross, the healer. Moments like that give Bee Season the surface of a great film, though it's really not even a good one