The gorgeous landscape of northern New Mexico becomes a supporting character in the first big-screen adaptation of a Judy Blume novel, Tiger Eyes (Delacorte, 1981). Though it may not be the first of her bestsellers that a fan would expect to see in theaters (Forever maybe?), this is her most cinematic, as the author herself has noted. The mountainous scenery around Los Alamos adds a sheen that money can’t buy, enhancing the look of this low-budget film.
Both the book and the film well capture the insularity of this company town, dominated by Los Alamos National Laboratories. Readers would be hard pressed to find fault with the screen translation, adapted by Blume and the film’s director, her son Lawrence. They will recognize almost verbatim passages of dialogue and a story line that has been tweaked only here and there. More than 30 years after it was published, the YA novel holds up very well, still retaining a contemporary and candid voice, with only a few nods to the early 1980s—Jean Naté, anyone?
As in the book, the movie begins with 17-year-old Davey (Arrow’s Willa Holland) and her family getting ready for a funeral: her father had been shot in the heart during the robbery of his Atlantic City boardwalk café. Afterwards, her 30-something mother takes up Aunt Bitsy’s offer to visit the Land of Enchantment for a week or so, but once there, plans change. Mom drifts through Bitsy’s house catatonically, downs meds, and holes up in her bedroom—she’s in no state to return home, but Davey’s seven-year old brother, Jason (Lucien Dale), adapts to his new life, showing no sign of grieving.
Now the new kid in her high school, Davey befriends Jane (Elise Eberle), a girl with issues—she carries a bottle of vodka in her school bag (and mysteriously drops out of the film towards the end). And out on a trek in the canyons, Davey begins a bumpy flirtation with a handsome college student named Wolf (Tatanka Means, son of the late Russell Means, who also appears here as the young man’s father). They share something in common: Wolf’s also facing mortality, as his dad’s dying of cancer.
Guided by a gentle pace, this is a quiet film, in tone and in its acting. More often than not, the scenes have fluidity, the best example of which is a night of Monopoly with Davey and Jason, which turns from playful to acrimonious in a flash.
The major challenge in bringing this book to any screen is how to dramatize the first-person observations of the angry-at-the-world Davey, who keeps a lid on her emotions, at least publicly, delaying a full-on reaction about her father’s killing. She goes so far as to lie to Jane that her father is working in India. On a Richter scale of young actresses today, the guarded Willa Holland is closer to Kristen Stewart’s quiescent aloofness than The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley’s volatility. Holland is surrounded by Cynthia Stevenson and Amy Jo Johnson as her aunt and mother, both of whom bring a needed level of complexity to their roles.
On the same day the film was released in theaters, it was also made available via video on demand throughout the country. Television is perhaps the ideal venue for this intimate, observational drama. It’s always been something of a head-scratcher that there haven’t been more Blume adaptations considering her large built-in fan base, especially on cable television with its niche driven channels. Maybe Tiger Eyes is the first step.
Directed by Lawrence Blume