Screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal knows exactly why the dysfunctional yet deeply Jewish Naumann family became her chosen muse.
"What drew me to them," she said, "was what drew me to 'Anne Frank.' It's a story about people with whom we can all identify."
The Naumanns are the central characters of "Bee Season," which opens this week in theaters. The film explores the dissolution of the Naumann family after the youngest member, 9-year-old Eliza (Flora Cross), discovers she's a spelling prodigy. While Eliza's father Saul (Richard Gere) lavishes his previously ordinary daughter with attention and feels she can enhance her gifts by studying kabbalah, he commits the classic parental error of living vicariously through her achievements. Meanwhile, Eliza's mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) struggles with mental illness and her brother Aaron (Max Minghella), neglected by his father, finds solace in a local Hare Krishna temple. Deciding she's to blame for these events, Eliza takes it on herself to repair what has shattered in her family.
For Gyllenhaal, an award-winning screenwriter, the film marks something of a career resurgence. Her credits include "Running on Empty" and "Losing Isaiah." After a slow period, "where I would call my agent and she'd offer me video game projects, this is a return," said Gyllenhaal, who's in her late 50s. "I mean, how many women my age have given up?"
So far, the film, directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee, has garnered mixed reviews. Time Out London called it an "ambitious, fiercely intelligent and superior family drama," while other publications say the film doesn't quite succeed in stringing together the varied and complex themes of the novel.
"One remains at a distant remove throughout, respectful of the tricky material under consideration and the difficulty of giving it flesh-and-blood onscreen but detached to the point of indifference to its outcome," wrote Todd McCarthy in Variety.
The movie is based on "Bee Season," the acclaimed novel by Myla Goldberg. Although Goldberg declined to be interviewed for this article, she's quoted on the Random House Web site as saying that the filmmakers' "overall devotion to the book was a constant source of surprise."
"It was a difficult book to adapt," said Gyllenhaal over coffee at the Urth Cafe in West Hollywood. "The internal voices of Goldberg's characters had to be externalized and all their different points of view had to manifest. This is not a film that ties everything neatly together. It's full of ambiguity, but so is life. Yes, I think it's an imperfect film but it doesn't have to be perfect to be important."
Gyllenhaal, the mother of actors Jake ("Proof," "Moonlight Mile") and Maggie ("Mona Lisa Smile," "Secretary") considers herself "culturally Jewish." The daughter of doctors, Gyllenhaal grew up in New York and describes her family as identifying with other Jewish, left-leaning intellectuals who sent their children to the nonsectarian Ethical Culture schools.
"I remember standing up during my confirmation ceremony and saying I didn't believe in God," Gyllenhaal recalled. "But I also associated Judaism with an intellectual tradition and acts of social justice. My problem with religion in general has to do with people's failure to understand that we're all reaching for the same thing."
Though Gyllenhaal can't say that working on "Bee Season" has brought her closer to Judaism, she does have a newfound respect for Kabbalah.
"I'm not the type to wear a red string around my wrist, but I appreciated what I learned. It's similar to what I understand about Buddhism," she said. "The themes are the same for anyone on a spiritual search."
Lead actor Gere, a practicing Buddhist for some 30 years, also likened the movie's spiritual aspects to Buddhism. For the movie, his character, the father, has been changed from a synagogue cantor to a religious studies professor. Still, the actor decided that extensive religious preparation was in order, after which he felt like he "spoke to every rabbi in America." Regarding kabbalistic teachings, he added: The more I learned, the more interesting I found it."
Gyllenhaal hadn't expected to end up a screenwriter. With an English degree from Barnard College and a master's in developmental psychology from Columbia University, Gyllenhaal initially thought she would work in politics or as a journalist. Instead, she accepted a production job at Children's Television Workshop and worked on shows such as "Sesame Street" and "Electric Company." The experience "taught me a lot about writing and how to reach a particular audience," she said.
After relocating to Los Angeles with her director husband Stephen and pursuing a career as a screenwriter, Gyllenhaal has consistently been drawn to "stories about families in extreme circumstances. It's my own issue, as I've always been looking at the effects of parenting on children," she said. "But it's also the world's issue. Political struggles are so often larger-scale family feuds."
As a mother, Gyllenhaal says she's done her best not to be like Saul in "Bee Season" and steered clear of becoming "a pushy stage mother. I didn't want my children acting, even when they were in high school," she said of 27-year-old Maggie and 24-year-old Jake. "I wanted them to wait, to be old enough to make the decision for themselves. In my house, they learned that the [movie] process wasn't glamorous."
Gyllenhaal attributes the decision to stay home with her children as one reason why years passed between screenwriting gigs. She credits her role as an adviser for the Sundance Film Festival with "reminding me that I'm in this because I want to tell good stories." She has just completed a new screenplay about Grace Metalious, the author of "Peyton Place." She's also working on a new script about the 19th-century feminist Victoria Woodhull and hopes to branch out into directing.
As for "Bee Season," Gyllenhaal hopes that "people will come away thinking about it and forgiving what isn't perfect. Perfect things are boring," she said. "Our children aren't perfect and we love them. That's how I feel about this movie."
"Bee Season" opens in theaters Friday, Nov. 11.
A story about finding divine purpose, unlocking the secrets to the universe, discovering a path to God, and seeking redemption, BEE SEASON is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a modern American family whose picture-perfect surface conceals an underlying world of secret turmoil.