"Bee Season" is generating mixed to negative reviews from critics, summed up by the New York Post with the letters "F-A-I-L-U-R-E."
Adapted from Myla Goldberg's novel, the movie, which opens this weekend, centers on the Naumann family, a cozy, rather cold clan where everybody knows their place. The dad, Saul (Richard Gere), runs the roost with a kind but firm my-way's-the-best-way attitude.
A professor who specializes in the mysticism of the Kabbalah, Saul devotes much of his free time to raising teen son Aaron (Max Minghella) in his image, overseeing the youth's religious studies and sharing violin and cello duets with the boy.
The mom, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), is a research scientist passively willing to let her husband dominate the home life while she wanders off on mysterious quests for trinkets, a search somehow linked to the parents' deaths in a car wreck when she was a child.
Daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) feels like wallpaper, always there but not really noticed by her parents, especially Saul.
Yet after Eliza begins a surprising run of victories in regional spelling bees, the dynamic switches; Aaron becomes the overlooked son as Saul obsesses on his daughter, sensing the hand of God in her talent.
The balance is turned upside-down in the Naumann home, Aaron retaliating through dalliances with other faiths, settling in with a Hare Krishna group through the influence of a beautiful devotee (Kate Bosworth, in a fleeting, undernourished role).
Meantime, Miriam's desperate cries for help go unnoticed by her husband amid his fixation on Eliza, as the family troubles slowly build to crisis level.
"What drives these people? Lunacy for lunacy's sake, rebellion for rebellion's sake, egghead autocracy for egghead autocracy's sake?" AP movie critic David Germain asks in his review.
"The film never offers satisfying answers, only vague hints of the characters' motivations and inner turmoil," Germain writes, giving the film two stars out of four.
"The most interesting sequences in 'Bee Season' are the cleverly designed visuals revealing Eliza's trancelike states as she summons up correct word spellings ... 'Bee Season' has sturdy performances from Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Max Minghella and newcomer Flora Cross ... Yet 'Bee Season' is so dour and low-key, it's difficult to care about the characters or their crises," he continued.
But critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars.
"'Bee Season' is not a movie about spelling bees. It is a movie about a spiritual choice that calls everyone's bluff," he wrote in his review.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.