Sometimes taking it easy is all it takes. In adapting Judy Blume’s 1981 bestseller, Tiger Eyes, to the screen, director Lawrence Blume (her son and script collaborator) lets the emotions inherent in this coming-of-age tale stay at a welcome distance from Hollywood slick. Good job. Judy Blume, whose young adult novels have generated sales exceeding 80 million copies since she first hit print in 1969, is more than a literary force of nature. She’s a groundbreaker, a renegade with the badge of honor that comes from being banned in certain schools and libraries for her raw, honest approach to such hot topics as teen sex (Forever), menstrual trauma (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), divorce (It’s Not the End of the World) masturbation (Maybe I Won’t), bullying (Blubber) and racism (Iggie’s House). It’s astonishing that Tiger Eyes is the first of her 28 books to become a feature film. It must be the lack of vampires and Harry Potter wizardry that scared off the studios. In truth, Blume’s novels are often journeys into the minds of teen girls, interior monologues that defy cinematic exploration. How do you illustrate emotions in a medium that values show over tell? For Tiger Eyes, first published in 1981, you hire the exceptional Willa Holland to play Davey, the 17-year-old Jersey girl (like Blume) barely coping with the violent death of her father in a shooting robbery. While her mother Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson), a teen herself when Davey was born, retreats into depression and pills, Davey tries to soldier on, caring for her younger brother, Jason (Lucien Dale). One scene, in which she forces him to confront their father’s murder, is devastating. Grief hits Davey right between the eyes as she tries to hold to the ground while the ground keeps shifting. Holland’s expressive face is a mirror of what’s roiling inside. The big shift for Davey is the family move from Atlantic City to Los Alamos, New Mexico, home of the atom bomb and some explosive confrontations between Davey and her new caretakers, her mother’s childless sister Bitsy (the excellent Cynthia Stevenson) and her ramrod husband Walter (Forrest Fyre nails the role, though the name sounds like a nom de plume for porn).
Everything is being thrown at Davey at once, a new life, a new school, a new friend in Jane, a burgeoning alcoholic played wonderfully by Elise Eberle. The gamechanger for Davey is meeting Martin (Tatanka Means), a Native American known as Wolf. He calls her Tiger. And their romantic connection is handled with rare delicacy by both actors. Wolf is also dealing with sorrow, his father Willie is battling cancer in a local hospital. That Willie is played by Russell Means, the noted political activist and Tatanka’s real-life father, brings their scenes together a touching gravity. That Russell Means died shortly after filming is beyond reckoning.
Emotions run high in Tiger Eyes, sometimes at such an altitude and with unnecessary musical amping that you fear the personal story at its core will spill over into melodrama. OK, it sometimes does. But Holland brings us back to what’s good and true. She’s a marvel. And Blume directs with understated finesse, often letting the canyons (gorgeously shot by Seamus Tierney) speak their own truth, as does the Native American ritual that Wolf shares with Tiger. The result is an uncommon intimacy, the kind you find in a Judy Blume novel. Her grit and grace are all over this heartfelt adventure of a movie. She gives it a spirit that soars.