“I wonder what it’s like to be dead?”
Venerable young adult fiction novelist Judy Blume published her first book in 1969 and despite iconic titles like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, only a failed television series based on her character Fudge found its way to the visual medium. A constant source of controversy as she continuously pushed the envelope on “age-appropriateness” for her readers, it isn’t a surprise Tiger Eyes has prevailed to become her first cinematic adaptation. Admittedly self-censored on the behest of her editor to willfully remove the topic of masturbation—one she was known for broaching previously—it was believed the alteration would help reach a wider audience. Whether a valid thought in 1981 or not, there’s no denying the book’s success or ability to expand Blume’s legacy today.
It’s fitting too that the person to help usher her voice onto the big screen would be her son, Lawrence Blume. Having only previously directed the comedic Martin & Orloff—written by and starring “Upright Citizens Brigade” alum—Tiger Eyes proves a stark change in subject matter. Dealing with the months following a random act of violence murder and its effect on the family of the victim, there isn’t much room for comedy besides a few lighthearted moments used to diffuse the prevalent sense of sorrow at play. These instances are where Blume and his cast shine brightest due to their authenticity opposite the surrounding, more-or-less overwrought drama. With a message like “don’t stop living your life” at its center, a bit of levity and vibrancy is necessary to temper its tragic underpinnings.
Davey Wexler (Willa Holland)—daughter of the deceased—is the film’s driving force, a teenage girl trapped between the helplessness of mortality and the fight to keep moving forward. Unable to truly be at peace with her father’s death while those around her seem happy to pretend nothing is wrong, an angst-ridden, combative attitude on her behalf is expected. Her mother Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson) begins popping anti-depressants to numb her pain and avoid the questions she knows Davey has. Younger brother Jason (Lucien Dale) copes by burying his feelings in order to “be a man”. It’s this laundry list of psychological barriers alongside the prevailing fear of what else might happen outside their Atlantic City boardwalk home that leads them to try a brief change of scenery in New Mexico.
An overly simplistic bandage for a gaping wound in execution, it’s also an honest reaction considering the circumstances. Aunt Bitsy (Cynthia Stevenson) and Uncle Walter (Forrest Fyre) have the means and room to house them in Los Alamos comfortably, but what begins as a week sojourn quickly turns into a semi-permanent residency. The kids are enrolled in school as Gwen falls deeper into her depression and heavy-handed familial dynamics rise to the surface. A battle between the Wexler’s city sensibilities and Bitsy’s sheltered, safety-first countryside mentality forms as Gwen’s power completely evaporates. Rather than a harmonious living arrangement, life in New Mexico transforms into a veritable prison with Bitsy and Walter taking control as though parents to all three guests. It’s a maneuver born from compassion that ultimately comes off opportunistic and cruel.
This is but one of the many details Tiger Eyes attempts to juggle with Davey’s quest to overcome the night she lost her Dad. While glimpses of her memories arise when current events spark nightmarish daydreams of what occurred—the full story only revealed at the end—the struggle of settling into a new life she didn’t asked for continues. Instead of providing periphery insight into her grieving process, however, these side plots become a cluttered mess of half-realized situations that may or may not ever be resolved. A heavy look into teenage alcoholism through new friend Jane (Elise Eberle) is apparently rectified off-screen, the frustration and abusive volatility of Uncle Walter is forgiven as though common occurrence, and Gwen’s prescription drug intake disappears in way that belittles the internal wrestling addicts endure.
The failure of these events could be due to short shrift from Lawrence Blume’s adaptation or the source material itself, but either way they make the film more contrived than necessary. I was never a teenage girl so maybe there is a disconnect in that respect as well, but the superfluity of outside interference completely bogs down the delicately handled main plot struggling to push itself to the forefront. Nothing that happens to Davey makes as indelible a mark on her soul than a chance encounter with Martin “Wolf” Ortiz (Tatanka Means) in the canyons. Whereas it seems everything else will be forgotten as soon as the Wexlers move back to Atlantic City, Wolf earns a place in her heart courtesy of his empathy, understanding, and unwavering support.
A college student not much older than Davey, Wolf’s own father lies on his deathbed at the hospital she ends up volunteering for. A friendship with romantic overtones sparks, forming as a result of their knowing exactly how the other feels. It is the one genuinely authentic relationship in its writing and performances. So many instances where Holland spars against an adult come off as over-the-top—something that surely works better on the page of a young adult novel than a film depiction mirroring life—that the success of moments shared with Means can’t help but prove those others even less effective than they are by themselves. The film is therefore caught in a purgatory of sorts, firing on all cylinders one second before devolving into cliché and misguided embellishment the next.
Johnson, Stevenson, Fyre, and others simply aren’t given more than two-dimensional pawns to play off Davey’s fully-formed, soulful child—something that works for side roles like Wolf’s deeply thoughtful father (the late Russell Means) but disappoints with those so crucial to her existence. They all feel like props being used to pile more and more hardship onto the lead until she finally reaches her breaking point—a fact I’d be more forgiving with in a PG-rated movie skewing towards younger audiences needing the simplicity. Tiger Eyes is PG-13 and obviously targeting older teens facing the same struggles of alcohol, love, and death at a make or break point in their lives, though. A lot felt inauthentic to me and I have to believe they’ll see right through it too.
 Davey (Willa Holland) alone in canyon
 Davey (Willa Holland) and Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson) on mountain
 Davey (Willa Holland) and Jane (Elise Eberle) Leave school
courtesy of Prodigy Public Relations