Judy Blume’s first novel, The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo, was published in 1969, yet it’s only now, 44 years later, that the first big-screen adaptation of her work—Tiger Eyes, based on 1981’s novel of the same name—finally opens in theaters.
This is a disgrace. One can imagine many reasons for such insanity. However, there’s one explanation that simply can’t be ignored: Hollywood’s continuing disinterest in serious portraits of young femininity, an issue that’s not confined to just film (see also, at your peril, teen-related TV). For an author of Blume’s stature, success, and humanity to have never before seen one of her work translated to the screen is a damning commentary on American cinema—especially considering that, as stories about everyday people navigating personal, social, and familial struggles, these require a fraction of the logistical and monetary investment necessitated by so many star-studded studio projects.
All that is reason to celebrate the release of Tiger Eyes, and the spotlight it’s shining on its celebrated author.
Tiger Eyes recounts the story of Davey (Willa Holland), a 13-year-old girl who, after the murder of her father, relocates to New Mexico with her grief-stricken, pill-popping mother and younger brother to live with her aunt and uncle—a geographic change accompanied by interior ones, as Davey learns to cope with death, responsibility, and burgeoning romantic and sexual feelings in a foreign locale. It’s a tale told with sensitivity and heart, both in Blume’s novel and in the new movie directed by her son Lawrence, who displays unsurprising faithfulness to his mother’s (and co-screenwriter’s) source material.
Though somewhat undercut by a couple of late plot developments that too easily resolve some of its protagonist’s dilemmas, the film remains an earnest look at bewildering experience of adolescence, especially when steeped in the trauma of loss, the confusion wrought by dislocation, and the excitement and fear that comes from the first sparks of love. It is true to life, conveying something of the emotional messiness of actual human experience.
When Blume first submitted to her editor the manuscript for Tiger Eyes, it included a moment in which Davey masturbates in the shower to the thought of Wolf, the handsome Native American with whom she develops a relationship. After much debate, Blume voluntarily cut the scene. As if to subtly reverse that decision, that moment is cannily suggested in the film, which depicts Davey, after an encounter with Wolf, in close-up in the shower, smiling.
Such an implication is in keeping with Blume’s young adult work, which tackles a range of youthful issues with an honesty and openness—and lack of sensationalism—that, especially at the time of her seminal novels’ 1970s and ‘80s publications, was all too rare, be it puberty and faith (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), bullying (Blubber), body-image anxieties (Deenie), sibling rivalry and frustration (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and the ensuing Fudge books), and sex (Forever …). For boys and girls alike, Blume’s work was joyful and funny but, most importantly, it was relatable—you could see yourself in her characters and their crises without having to try. That there’s now an endless array of likeminded novels available for budding readers (my own daughters are particularly fond of Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones series) reconfirms the old maxim about imitation and flattery. More crucially, though, it speaks to an unflagging hunger for fiction that’s at once comedic, heartfelt, and authentic.
A hunger that Hollywood, it’s clear, has next to no interest in legitimately satisfying. True, there have been exceptions—The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and its sequel, as well as the adaptation of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Beezus, have targeted the same type of market pioneered by Blume, and the uneven Diary of a Wimpy Kid films have focused more on boys’ lives. And, of course, the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises have proven immensely popular and lucrative genre vehicles for female coming-of-age narratives. Yet these are rare footnotes in a medium that prizes male-oriented action fantasies above all other concerns, a cinematic culture that boasts hundreds of annual domestic releases but still often leaves young female viewers (especially those with an interest in realistic, understated drama) on the multiplex curb. And to exacerbate the problem, those juvenile aggro-extravaganzas seem increasingly intent on depicting women in highly sexualized ways—to the point that even Oz the Great and Powerful felt the need to re-envision the Wicked Witch of the West as a busty green beauty.
The lack of counterpoint depictions of femininity is by now so drastic that a film as modest and unassuming as Tiger Eyes now resonates as a revelation. That’s not to shortchange Lawrence Blume’s indie, which has a refreshing candor—likely born from the filmmakers’ ability to maintain strict creative control over the $2 million project—that carries it over its bumpier patches. Rather, it’s simply to underline how dire the current cinematic landscape has become in terms of actively pursing female tween and teen audiences—which, in turn, makes Tiger Eyes not just a breath of fresh air, but also an all-too-uncommon opportunity for those moviegoers to voice their demands with the one thing that Hollywood always understands: the dollar.Follow @VoiceFilmClub