Tiger Eyes: Judy Blume on the big screen

July 18, 2013

Tiger Eyes
Grade: 77
Cast: Willa Holland, Tatanka Means, Amy Jo Johnson, Cynthia Stevenson, Forrest Frye, Russell Means
Director: Lawrence Blume
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 92 minutes

Tiger Eyes – Trailer from Tashmoo Productions on Vimeo.

In a way it’s surprising that Tiger Eyes is the first theatrically released movie made from one of Judy Blume’s novels. I could have sworn someone made a movie of Wifey (1978), which is one of Blume’s rare novels for grown-ups. (Really, wasn’t this a Jill Clayburgh film? I must have dreamed it.)

Anyway, much respect is due Blume, who, while she writes mainly for young people, generally deal deals with serious, real-life issues in a clear-eyed, unsentimental way. Her books have tackled such seeming cinematic issues as teen sex (Forever — which did become a TV movie, starring Stephanie Zimbalist), racism (Iggie’s House) and divorce (It’s Not the End of the World). I remember her exceptionally fine Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, from 1970, which is a coming of age story about a 12-year-old New Jersey girl growing up unchurched in a home with a Jewish father and a Christian mother. Blume is a literary monument, a spirit guide who has led generations of girls through awkward puberties, and I’m tempted to ascribe the lack of movie versions of her books to the general subtlety of her vision.

I wasn’t familiar with her 1981 best-seller, Tiger Eyes, before this film, but I’m told that generations of girls have grown up feeling a deep connection to the story, which is about 17-year-old New Jersey high school girl Davey (played here by the charming but limited Willa Holland) who is trying to recover after her father’s murder. Davey’s grieving mother, Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson), decides the best thing to do is to temporarily move the family to Los Alamos, N.M., the birthplace of the atom bomb and home to an overbearing aunt (Cynthia Stevenson) and uncle (Forrest Frye).

Enrolled in a new school, Davey suffers the usual indignities of the transfer student, although she does manage to secure an alcoholic best friend (Elise Eberle) and a crush on an Indian boy named Wolf (Tatankacq PM Means), a rock climber and aspiring physicist who is dealing with some heavy issues of his own. Wolf’s dad, Willie (Russell Means, the Indian activist and Tatanka’s real-life father who died shortly after the film wrapped), is battling cancer in a local hospital.

Yet as promising as the material sounds, the movie — directed by the author’s son, Lawrence Blume, who adapted the book with his mother’s help — scants the rich emotional potential in favor of After School Special cliches, and while Holland and the rest of the young cast managed to hold their own, the adult characters are just caricatures and the film consistently defaults to the same sort of heavily underlined — by music cues and stagy dialogue — sentimentality Blume banishes from her literary work.

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