In the film adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s popular book, fifth-grader Eliza (Flora Cross) has a deep connection to letters, and it’s not just her sudden success in spelling bees that excites her Jewish scholar father, Saul (Richard Gere). He’s convinced that his young daughter has the ability to access the “ear of God” using tools from Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism that, among other things, ascribes an intrinsic divinity to words and letters.

A movie that stars the poster boy for Buddhism in American (Gere) and links spelling bees and a spiritualism popularized by beaded-bracelet-wearing celebrities (like Madonna) seems like fodder for the skeptics. Alas, such skeptics will find plenty to scoff at in this too earnest and flawed film.

In what’s essentially a moody and dull family-in-crisis drama, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel can’t find a way to depict a mystical experience in a way that doesn’t seem hokey, comical or wholly out of place. Eliza is beset by computer-animated effects: letters spring from leaves and flowers imprinted on her blouse, and during a spelling bee, an origami bird flutters over the audience illuminating the letters she needs. These are pretty, enchanting Amélie-like moments, but they appear more cutesy than spiritual or divine. It betrays the rest of the movie, which is steeped in seriousness as the family works through emotional battlefields.

Mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) has a bad case of the crazies and is falling apart, and brother Aaron is running away to join the Krishnas. Saul is out of touch with his wife and only shows interest in his kids when they have academic success. In one of Saul’s lectures, he tells his students that Kabbalists believe connecting with God can help us “restore what has been shattered.” The filmmakers stretch to great lengths to work in symbols of fractured glass and prisms, hoping to use the images to connect the family’s crisis to Kabbalist teachings. Stretch is the operative word here, because they also want to connect Eliza’s spelling bee prowess with an ability to directly commune with God, a catalyst to restoring this shattered family.

The catch: To accept the premise of the movie, the filmmakers demand you accept the Kabbalist ideas. Even though the mystic traditions are handled far more intellectually than in other pop-culture venues, such as a Madonna video, the story leaves no room for doubt, skepticism or uncertainty. Yet, even if you buy into the mystical elements and accept that this little girl’s more in touch with letters than Vanna White could ever hope to be, the story is still disappointingly fractured. It’s a lot to swallow, and those rough edges don’t go down easily.


At the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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