Director/Coscreenwriter: Lawrence Blume
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Continuing the general contempt for family films with thoughtful characters and situations, exhibitors have all but ignored Tiger Eyes, the first film adaptation of a novel by the reigning monarch of books for young adults, Judy Blume. The independently produced Tiger Eyes opened this week in Chicago on exactly one screen in a small, divided movie theatre in the suburbs that caters more often than not to a Jewish audience. The two elderly women who were with us at the beginning of the movie were gone soon after it started after realizing that they were not watching the documentary they came to see, Hava Nagila (The Movie).
Had they stuck around, they would have seen that there was some Jewish content in Tiger Eyes, which centers on the grieving process of the Jewish Wexler family. Adam Wexler (Michael Sheets), the owner of a sandwich shop on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey, has been gunned down in a robbery, leaving his wife Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson), young son Jason (Lucien Dale), and our main protagonist, daughter Davey (Willa Holland), near destitute both emotionally and financially. Gwen’s sister and brother-in-law, Bitsy and Walter Kronick (Cynthia Stevenson and Forrest Frye), take the Wexlers into their luxurious home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, until Gwen can get over her paralyzing grief. Bitsy, disappointed over not having a family of her own, hopes to keep the Wexlers around permanently, enrolling Jason and Davey in the local schools and doting on a malleable Jason. Davey, seeing what is happening, tries to rouse her mother out of her dependent stupor and separates herself from her surroundings as much as possible, lost in her memories of her father and the horrible day he died. The family dynamics at work between the Kronicks and the Wexlers form the backdrop against which Davey’s slow and painful progress toward healing takes place.
Tiger Eyes is a film well aimed at young adults grappling with their own growing pains and dark histories. The screenplay by Lawrence Blume and his mother Judy Blume is small, avoiding the kind of complexity for which an adult film might have reached, keeping the focus mainly on Davey and the few people with whom she interacts. Her English teacher (Josh Berry) pairs her on her first day in her new school with Jane Albertson (Elise Eberle), a bright, haughty, very troubled teen with a drinking problem. Despite an offer to join the clique of creative anachronists who live out a medieval kind of existence, Davey stays loyal to Jane; after all, she’s not planning on settling down in Los Alamos and doesn’t really care where she fits. Thus, the cast of characters remains simple, and the complex of problems stratified in an understandable way without completely ignoring other elements in Davey’s environment.
The most healing aspect of Davey’s life in Los Alamos is Wolf (Tatanka Means), a Mexican-Native American who finds her in the desert after she has accidentally slid down a bluff she was exploring. After worrying that he might do her harm, she drops her guard, but tells him her name is Tiger. They continue to meet over the months, and when she attends a “relation” ceremony among his tribe on the pueblo, she understands that his ties with his home were strained as well and that his tribal family held the ceremony to strengthen his connection to them and support him. Wolf, real name Martin Ortiz, is attending Cal Tech to become a physicist like the many scientists at Los Alamos, and has taken a year off to attend to his dying father (Russell Means). As real-life son and his real-life father dying of cancer, Tatanka and Russell Means had an easy way into these characters and convey the private nature of their real and imagined relationship that matches perfectly with Davey and her memories of her father.
In this, his second feature film, Blume shows he has more to learn. He’s quite good at using landscape and setting to add mood (of course, that’s not too hard with New Mexico as a setting), but seems rather at sea with his characters. Cynthia Stevenson, who is the go-to gal for conventional, somewhat ridiculous women, gets little help from Blume and chooses to define herself more by her situation than her character’s inner fear. As a tour guide in the Bradbury Science Museum, she cheerfully shows off replicas of the atomic bombs that killed 220,000 people, and later, happily throws a Christmas party while Davey retreats to her room and lights a candle to celebrate Hanukkah in memory of her father. When Stevenson is called on to have a true emotional moment, she just doesn’t have the chops or the director to make it come alive.
Similarly, despite some kissing, the quasi-romance between Martin and Davey causes no discomfort, and therefore, Tiger Eyes is completely safe as a family film. But without a little chemistry, it’s hard to buy the connection between the two at more than a situational level. While the film gives life to the Native American experience in sharp contrast to the war-fueled prosperity and success ethos of the white Americans in Los Alamos, it still trafficks in stereotype. Martin and his father, whom Davey becomes close to at the hospital where she volunteers, step into the spirit guide roles white Americans have assigned to Native Americans since the crying Indian commercial for the Keep America Beautiful campaign in the 1970s.
Where the film succeeds beautifully is in the relationship, too little seen, between Davey and her brother. When Bitsy tries to indoctrinate Jason in the Los Alamos definition of success, Davey dreams a life of selling cookies on the boardwalk in Atlantic City for him. In another scene, they play Monopoly one night when the Kronicks double-date with Gwen and a fix-up, and spar joyfully and believably when Davey discovers Jason has been taking money from the bank. The scene, however, turns dark rather abruptly, with Davey accusing Jason of forgetting their father; nonetheless, their argument felt very real and offered the kind of emotional depth I would have liked to have seen throughout the film.
Blume slowly builds a picture of the day Davey’s father died in intermittent flashbacks, finally revealing Davey cradling her father on her lap as the life drains out of him. These scenes are beautifully shot, suggesting through lighting and lensing an unreal nightmare Davey is forced to relive a bit at a time until she can face the final moments of her father’s life. The progression suggests how grieving works, in a circular manner that spirals us a bit at a time back into our lives. While we don’t see it as directly with Gwen as we do with Davey, it is clear from small actions Gwen takes that she is having a parallel experience.
Willa Holland has a lot to carry on what the elder Ortiz says are her strong shoulders, and she is mostly up to the task. She has a magnetic screen presence that makes us want to spend time with her, and does indeed have the bright smile and sad eyes that Wolf remarks on when he first meets her. She can project her anger, grief, and struggle to face the rest of her life without her beloved father all at once and provides a relatable role model for girls and boys who are growing toward adulthood. I could see a child who has lost a family to divorce relate to this just as easily as one who has lost a parent to death, and children who have not faced such losses gaining an empathetic understanding toward those who have. In a marketplace bereft of substantial family films, Tiger Eyes is a welcome addition.