The documentary Spellbound (Dir: Jeffrey Blitz, 2002) unveiled the world of the bizarre yet compulsive spelling competitions in the USA. The participants, usually children of around 10 or 11 years of age, have to spell their way through local and regional phases of the competition in order to get to the finals of the National Spelling Bee, which is then televised and the winning child made into a star. The only-in-America weird thing about the Spelling Bee is how absurdly obscure words some of the words the children have to spell are – I can’t even remember them, except for the odd easy ones like origami – but perhaps that’s exactly what is compulsive about it. It’s the revenge of the nerds.

Bee Season uses this universe of spelling competitions as the background for its story of spiritual search in modern life, but the overall result is messy and often rather clunky. Based on a novel by Myla Goldberg, it’s easy to see that scriptwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhall (Jake’s mother) had a difficult job in her hands, but it is more down to the directors to have made a dog’s dinner of the film.

Set in San Francisco, the film features Richard Gere as Saul, a religious studies professor who is married to Juliette Binoche’s Miriam. The couple have two children, the perennially anguished Aaron (Max Minghella) and the sweet, intelligent Eliza (Flora Cross), an excellent child actor who looks like she could be following in the footsteps of Natalie Portland, as she seems ready for a film career (she even looks a like a child version of Natassja Kinski).

When Eliza’s super spelling talent comes to the attention of the self-absorbed, slightly dictatorial Saul, the family, that looks at first like professional, arty San Francisco combo, suddenly becomes cold and unhinged: Miriam is seen entering houses and having flashbacks of her parents’ fatal car accident that took place when she a child; Aaron ends up in a Hare Krishna centre by invitation of a cute blonde who picks him in a park; and Saul starts coaching his daughter and seeing all sorts of analogies between words and god.

McGehee and Siegel (whose previous efforts include The Deep End) seem fond of obvious visual metaphors: Miriam gives Eliza a kaleidoscope and we surely get a lot of kaleidoscopic screens throughout the film as well as visual references that allude to the recurring motif of the Victorian parlour toy. We also get a special effect of ink turning into millions of little letters floating about.

Gere looks like he’s making a huge effort, but it’s hard to see him as a believer in Jewish mysticism. Binoche makes the best of her sad Miriam, but it all seems like a workaday job for busy-bee Binoche (who is in another film opening in the UK this week, Cache, which works on every level that Bee Season doesn’t). As the saying goes, the way to hell is paved with good intentions and although this is meant to be a sincere portrait of the breakdown of communication in contemporary life and the search for spirituality – in short, a contemporary uptake of very old concerns- the fragile structure of the film and its pretentiousness do not let it be anything but the cinematic equivalent of new age elevator music.

Bee Season opens in the UK on 27 January 06.