BEE SEASON — ** — Flora Cross, Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche; rated PG-13 (sex, profanity); Regency Trolley Square Mall Cinemas.

The film version of "Bee Season" may appeal to those who have read the source material, Myla Goldberg's best-selling novel about family dysfunction, spelling bees and Judaism. But those who aren't as familiar with the material will likely find it befuddling.

This aloof, often cold drama may be too cerebral for its own good, as it fails to explain some of its more mystical elements. And the use of gimmicky digital effects that appear to have been inspired by the Oscar-winning film "A Beautiful Mind" prove to be one more distraction.

The one thing this drama has going for it is the astonishingly assured performance by actress Flora Cross, a newcomer who beat out Dakota Fanning for the lead role because she bears more of a resemblance to the actress playing her mother, Juliette Binoche.

Cross stars as Eliza Naumann, or Ellie, a California sixth-grader who discovers she has an aptitude for spelling. Her scholar father, Saul (Richard Gere), is thrilled by this development, seeing her abilities as a divine gift that he can encourage.

But Saul's increasing attention to his daughter has driven a wedge between him and his son, Aaron (Max Minghella), who has begun exploring other religious options. Saul also neglects his wife, Miriam (Binoche), who has been going through some spiritual angst of her own.

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Among other things, the film assumes that audiences have some knowledge of or at least some familiarity with the Kabbalah, which is pretty big leap. Many viewers will be scratching their heads as they try to figure out what Gere's character is going on about.

Also, a big plot twist involving Binoche's character is so ludicrous it's almost laughable, while the film's treatment of the Hare Krishna faith seems pretty insensitive.

This material is clearly too much for co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel ("The Deep End"). And they've made a seriously casting blunder with Gere, who looks too glamorous to be playing a Jewish scholar.

Cross is impressive but Binoche is as neglected as her character and given very little to do.

"Bee Season" is rated PG-13 for scenes of simulated sex (fairly discreet by today's standards) and scattered use of strong profanity (including two uses of the so-called "R-rated" curse word). Running time: 104 minutes.