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"Bee Season" is a beautifully filmed, well-acted, contemporary family drama, which, while not always completely faithful, strives to maintain the spirit of the best-selling novel of the same name, penned by Kensington author Myla Goldberg.

Set in a sunny California suburb, "Bee Season" focuses on how a seemingly ideal family implodes just as its youngest member (newcomer Flora Cross) achieves great success in the competitive world of spelling bees.

In the film, Richard Gere ("Chicago," "Pretty Woman") plays Saul Naumann, a religious studies professor fascinated by the teachings of the Kabbalah, a branch of Jewish mysticism. A good provider and devoted to his family, Saul never shows as much interest in his 11-year-old daughter, Eliza, as he does when she proves to be a champion speller.

More comfortable with the academic and religious implications of the little girl’s talent than with exuding a typical daddy’s pride, Saul tries to show Eliza the spiritual link to her triumphs by teaching her all about the Kabbalah. Gere is terrific in the role of a middle-aged man thrilled to help his daughter find a path to God.

Unfortunately, Saul’s new obsession all but excludes his wife, Miriam, played by Juliette Binoche, the stunning star of "The English Patient" and "Chocolat," as well as his teen-age son, Aaron, played by actor Max Minghella, the son of celebrated filmmaker Anthony Minghella, in his first major film role.

Although Saul speaks often about the power of words, it soon becomes clear that he should use them to communicate more with his wife and son. If he did so earlier in the film, he might have noticed everyone in the family was looking for some sort of enlightenment and they might have been able to help each other.

While Saul is off training Eliza for her competitions, Miriam, missing his attention and haunted by the tragic deaths of her parents, starts behaving in bizarre ways. Binoche offers another great performance here, but more time is needed to explore her complex problems and personality.

Aaron, meanwhile, opts to rebel against his father and his spiritual beliefs by exploring the Hare Krishna religion after meeting one of its prettier members, played by "Beyond the Sea" star Kate Bosworth.

Watching her family disintegrate as she succeeds, Eliza realizes it is up to her to bring them back together again. Her desire to make what is shattered whole again makes for compelling drama, even if the movie does tend to drag a bit at one-hour and 44-minutes.

The third feature film from directing team Scott McGehee and David Siegel ("The Deep End," "Suture") is, nevertheless, an absorbing look at two interesting worlds - that of the spelling bee competitor and that of the seemingly idyllic American family.

Although fans of Goldberg’s beloved novel will likely swarm to the film when it opens this month, they will just as likely buzz about how much the movie departs from the book.

In the film, Saul is a professor instead of a cantor, and the family lives in California instead of in a town near Philadelphia. But the filmmakers, particularly screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal ("Running on Empty," "Losing Isaiah") do seem to respect the author’s material even if they sometimes allow the mystical aspects of the story to eclipse what could have been an even more gripping family drama.

"Bee Season," directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, will be released in Brooklyn movie theaters on Nov. 18.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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