|Cinema Signals by Jules Brenner:|
Moving Beyond Word Memorization in the Middle Grades
For a story about spelling bees and a gifted child, there's an awful lot of mysticism and psychosis going on. And, at the risk of being blunt, it's pretty phony. This strange movie channels the correct spelling of words by a 9-year old girl through a mystical filter, as though spelling had a supernatural dimension.
Professor Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) is a dashing university professor who makes religious philosophy less of a bore by virtue of his animated delivery. At home, the educator is a paragon of parental inspiration by playing duos with his son Aaron (Max Minghella), he on violin, Aaron on cello. His marriage with his beautiful scientist wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche, "Chocolat") seems to be on track and he clearly loves but pays little attention to his youngest, daughter Eliza (Flora Cross). Until she wins her first spelling bee.
When the accomplishment is brought to his attention, he attends her next spelling contest, which she wins, and notices a fascinating, slightly peculiar practice that Eliza is using. When she gets certain words to spell, she closes her eyes and enters a trance-like state, visualizing it, keeping her audience in excruciating agony until she's ready to take a stab at the spelling. The dramatic hesitation is aided visually by fonts of letters flowing out of the ether.
When Eliza proves capable of spelling words that should be beyond her frame of reference, Dad is convinced that she has a special gift. He embarks on putting her through word drills in preparation for the national contest, and on training her in dangerous channelling techniques from the Kaballah that might make her capable of speaking to God.
Meanwhile, Aaron, now completely cut off from his father's attentions, starts studying other religions in order to find his own pathways and identity apart from his father's overbearing influence. He meets Chali (Kate Bosworth, "Beyond the Sea"), a sexy blond that no red-blooded, hormone-pulsing teenage boy could ignore, and she becomes his guide to an alternate religion (though the relationship is antiseptically devoid of untoward impulses). Poor mom and wife Miriam, also suffering inattention, finds a fanciful means of expression that puts her sanity into question.
By the end of this, despite the gentle and powerfully captivating portrayal by Ms. Cross, there's not much that doesn't wear out its welcome. The mysticism and psychology destroy connections to these normal looking but ethereally disposed folks who mostly operate in unearthly zones of reality. I divine the conceptual treatment as a lost opportunity for the acting talents involved.
Binoche's appearance in a high budget American production is a fine breath of freshness, though a more fitting role for this Parisian talent would be desirable. As for Gere, we need not worry about his future employment opportunities. The film was adapted for the screen by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (Maggie and Jake's mother and a trained developmental psychologist who wrote "Losing Isaiah") from Myla Goldberg's novel and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.
The dedication to the beatific is inescapable throughout (an absurdly feminine touch?), the focus on characters as dispersed as fertilizer in a garden sprayer, and the soundtrack as helpful as it can be.
The season is likely to be brief.
The Soundtrack Album