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'Bee' girl carries film

TORONTO -- Flora Cross is a beautiful young girl and a wise old soul. She has a gravity about her. By that I do not mean that she is sad, but that she weighs matters, considers what they are, and says what she thinks. That is a rare quality in anyone. Flora Cross is 12.

She is essentially the star of "Bee Season," which opens Friday, and is an extraordinary and haunted film. She's billed below Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche, who play her parents, but the film centers on her character and she carries its weight on her shoulders. It requires a solemnity in the young character, who takes it seriously and knows that her decisions matter.

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I interviewed Flora at the Toronto Film Festival, where she arrived at the Four Seasons coffee shop with her father, Joe Cross; his fiancee, Vianna Bargas, and the movie's publicist. I asked for a table for five. "No," said her father, "I think Flora would rather talk to you by herself. We'll come back later."

Unusual. Young actors routinely arrive with support staffs, although to be sure Dakota Fanning also abandoned her mother and her publicist and talked on her own. But Fanning is a Hollywood veteran. This is Flora Cross' first movie. She's a sixth-grader from Argentina. But there is never any doubt she's her own woman.

In the movie, she plays Eliza, whose father barely seems to notice her until she starts winning spelling bees. Richard Gere is the father, a Berkeley professor of religious studies, specializing in the Kaballah and Jewish mysticism. His home life centers on a compulsive need to cook food and serve it to his family. Juliette Binoche, as Eliza's mother, lives a secret life of her own, which includes entering strange houses for personal reasons. Eliza's older brother, Aaron (Max Minghella), neatly trumps his father by joining Hare Krishna.

The girl's secret is that while her father theorizes about the Kaballah, for Eliza, it is a reality. The Kaballah treats words as if they are the objects from which the world is created. They have their own reality, and for Eliza, they float in front of her eyes, and she can spell them, even if she has never seen them. Believe me when I say I have not revealed too much: This is not a movie about using mysticism to win spelling bees. It is a movie about a brave girl in a wounded family.

"I got the script in Argentina," Flora told me. "I read it with my dad, and I really wanted to make it."

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Argentina, I said.

"That's where we live right now. I was born in Paris. I've lived all around. My first language is French. Second is English. I speak Spanish also. My father was a journalist and still is. He writes about boxing and horses. He has worked in Panama, Israel; he was doing his job in Jerusalem, and it was supposed to be dangerous to be in the old city with the Arabs. I'm a Jew, but nobody said anything about my Jewish star, which I wore around my neck. One of the reasons I didn't like 'Million Dollar Baby' is that I used to go and watch my father at work, and from what I know about boxing, it wasn't very accurate."

I really liked it, I said.

"Depends on how important you think the boxing is."

So you read the script, and then you auditioned ...

"It originally wasn't going to be Juliette Binoche as the mother," she said. "It was going to be somebody else. Then Juliette got the role. The daughter was going to be Dakota Fanning. But when they cast Juliette, they were thinking, I looked like I could be Juliette's daughter. So I got the role."

You do look a lot like her, I said.

"My mom left me when I was 6 years old," Flora said. "I've only seen her once since."

She left?

"Just -- she left. I don't know why."

And now you live with your father and his fiancee?

"I don't know why they say that. They're really not fiances. Just girlfriend and boyfriend. I go to a French school, I've never gone to an American school in my life. I've also done a lot of home-schooling."

Did you want to be an actress?

"An actress or a vet. Now I think I just want to be an actress. This movie was very difficult. There were scenes I didn't like, where I had to tremble. I had never acted before, although my brothers were actors. Or are. Not very famous. My brother, Harley Cross, he made 'The Believers' and 'The Fly 2.' Remember that little boy? That's him. He's in 'Kinsey' for just a couple of minutes. Now he makes mints. Hint Mints. You can get them at Barnes & Noble. They come in little curved tins, like this."

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She made a little curved tin with her hand.

"My other brother is Eli Marienthal. He was in 'American Pie.'"

Did you see "Spellbound," that documentary about spelling bees?

"I saw it. My brother rented it. I visit New York every Christmas to see my big brother and his family. I have a friend who won a spelling bee. She told me it was incredible pressure. What's strange is, I know how to spell in French. Before this movie, I could hardly spell in English."

Before she made "Bee Season," she said, she rented the DVD of "The Deep End," the 2001 film by the same directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel.

"I listened to their commentary track. Very informative about their methods as filmmakers. I have always loved films. More old films than new ones. Chaplin is my hero. I have lots of his stuff in my room. Jason Lee, who is directing the next movie I'm making, lives right next door to where Chaplin worked. Bette Davis is my favorite actress. 'All About Eve,' that's a great movie. I like the French. 'The 400 Blows' and 'Jules and Jim.' Juliette worked with Kieslowski, and we talked a lot about his films."

Not every 12-year-old knows about Charlie Chaplin, Bette Davis, Francois Truffaut and Krzysztof Kieslowski, I said.

"I wonder why not? I really love Juliette. She's a great actress and a wonderful personality. 'The English Patient' is a classic movie. We spoke French with each other. Or English. Sometimes we didn't know what we were speaking. When I was in the movie, I really felt like I was her daughter, since I don't have a mother.

"Richard Gere, he's funny in real life. In the beginning, he ignores his daughter. He doesn't know she's alive until she starts winning. Then he sees her. She knows winning isn't everything. Most of all, for her mother, she wants her family to be all together again. That's very touching, when her mother comes and says, 'That's my daughter.'"

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