Film Review: Tiger Eyes

<i>Tiger Eyes</i>, from the mega-popular teen novel by Judy Blume and directed by her son, Lawrence Blume, asserts that you can go home again; in fact, maybe you shouldn&#8217;t have left in the first place. The journey away, in this case Atlantic City

In Tiger Eyes, Willa Holland (of TV’s “Gossip Girl” and “The O.C.”) is effective as 17-year old Davey, who moves with her mother and younger brother from a stressed New Jersey urban environment to New Mexico following the sudden death of her father. She is in a state of grieving, broken mainly by concern for her mom (Amy Jo Johnson), who is suffering from take-to-the-bed depression. Another miserable distraction is her relentlessly cheery aunt (Cynthia Stevenson) and rather rigid uncle (Forrest Fyre), who give this suddenly rudderless family a home—theirs—in Los Alamos, and more structure than they can handle. Davey’s special trauma, and inability to move beyond her sadness, is explained quite late in the movie by some clumsy flashbacks to scenes of her father’s murder in his convenience store, and her discovery of his body.

Yet in the “Land of Enchantment” an emotional pathway is opened for Davey by Wolf (Tatanka Means), a hunky Native American who happens to be hanging around some rocks when she trips and falls during a solitary hike. With a deification of some American Indian beliefs and practices pureed for a teen audience, Wolf shows her how to surmount her pain: A symbolic feather is helpful; so is some New Age-ish philosophy, and his own personal history. (It also doesn’t hurt that Wolf, her spiritual Prince Charming, is also a scholarship student at a prestigious university.) He looks the part, which is no surprise, as he is the real-life son of Native American activist Russell Means, who also has a role in the film. Not just because the elder Means died last year, it is somewhat disconcerting to see him playing a part which confines him to spouting sappy clichés from a hospital bed. The script for Tiger Eyes was co-written by novelist Judy Blume and her son Lawrence, who also directed, so no excuses for lines such as Davey’s “I don’t have any friends here,” followed by Wolf suggesting, “Maybe you should get some.”

Topics which once were verboten in pop lit for teenage girls—puberty, menstruation, burgeoning sexuality, questioning what is normal—won Blume a huge, loyal readership, and sparked controversy for her (admirable) airing of these issues. Blume’s books have sold more than 82 million copies worldwide. (Yet the current generation of young women has the Internet to go to for information, even if parental controls are “on.”) Other teen fiction by Blume has been adapted for television, but Tiger Eyes, published in 1981, is the first Blume feature film—a bit of a surprise choice since father loss is a universal, not a girl teen, theme. It is unquestionably a film about family—what isn’t these days?—and by family.

Cheaply made, for just over two million dollars, Tiger Eyes looks under-populated, even for its Southwestern milieu, with the feel of a made-for-TV movie, not an indie film, which is how it’s being promoted. The canyons of New Mexico are gorgeously photographed (hard to mess up there), but don’t jibe with disparaging observations about atomic bomb development in Los Alamos/Alamogordo. It may help to know that Judy Blume once lived unhappily in Los Alamos, but in this movie the healing qualities of the natural landscape for Davey, and the reminders of the historical reality of A-bomb plants and testing, go in very different directions.

The truest image in the film is Davey’s eyes. They match, in shade and occasional flashes, the physical stone—a strength-giving talismanic tiger eye—which is both a gift and name for Davey from Wolf. Now if only the rest of the film had such verisimilitude. Nonetheless, a spirited junior heroine is always welcome.