Judy Blume is one of the most popular young adult novelists of all time, which makes it something of a surprise that almost none of her works have been given the feature-length treatment. Discounting an ill-received 1991 TV adaptation of “Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great,” no Blume novel has been turned into a movie until “Tiger Eyes,” which opens this week. Directed by Blume’s son Lawrence, this gentle drama based on Blume’s 1981 novel works surprisingly well considering the numerous trappings of the material, while demonstrating exactly why it’s so difficult to bring Blume’s work to the screen.
In premise alone, “Tiger Eyes” belongs to the strain of cheesy, sentimental stories of young people dealing with death and the usual pains of growing up. The movie treads plenty of familiar ground in that regard, but in context, it’s a lot more effective that one might expect. Blume’s novels deal with coming of age issues that tend to crop up as indie film clichés: The difficulty of dealing with divorced parents and burgeoning sexuality, when treated sincerely, can often seem like cloying gestures.
Her best-known acclaimed work, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.,” deals with female issues like menstruation upfront but mainly centers around the soul-searching tendencies of its young protagonist. That balance between sincerity and discomfort is a tough one to pull off, but the comparatively tamer “Tiger Eyes” provides some indication of how to do it. Lawrence Blume, who wrote the screenplay with his mother, brings emotional clarity to the story through entirely believable performances and a delicately orchestrated mood that rarely overplays the scenario.
From its first scenes, that’s exactly what “Tiger Eyes” threatens to do. The movie follows the experiences of 17-year-old Davey (Willa Holland) in the wake of her father’s unexpected death in a robbery. With her younger brother, Davey is the child of parents who gave birth to her as teenager; her suddenly widowed mother, in her early thirties, feels unfit to carry on parenthood alone and takes her children to their aunt and uncle’s palatial home in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The site of the Manhattan Project, as a tour of the Los Alamos National Laboratory that the family takes reminds us, Los Alamos creates the ideal backdrop for Davey’s emotional instability: The wide open desert planes reflect the isolated nature of her bereaved state, while the small town life she’s forced to accept make it impossible to hide from the world in spite of her best efforts.
Holland, whose fragile, angst-riddled turn provides the movie with its crucial anchor — think Shailene Woodley in “The Descendents” — constantly appears in close-ups that foreground her interior struggles, though the movie’s atmosphere is strengthened by cinematographer Seamus Tierney’s magnificent gold and brown wide shots of the surrounding terrain. Coupled with Michelle Branch’s bittersweet pop songs, the cinematic realization of Davey’s plight makes its familiar ingredients more palatable: While feuding with her demanding relatives and engaging in rebellious after school antics with a party-loving group of friends, Davey meets the seemingly perfect gentleman Wolf (Tatanka Means), a Native American teen whose ailing father (Russell Means) encounters Davey while she volunteers at the local hospital.
United by their joint struggles with losing their parents, Davey and Wolf form a partnership that’s somewhat awkwardly overstated when she pays a visit to his Native American relatives and witnesses their rituals. Using their burgeoning romance as a centerpiece, the movie barrels toward a fairly pat conclusion, but doesn’t shy away from darker ingredients — including Davey’s kinship with an alcoholic classmate and the class tensions she encounters in a dispute with her snobbish uncle. The climax, which finds Davey performing a heartfelt rendition of “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” brings the turmoil to the fore better than any of the by-the-numbers monologues preceding it.
The young adult genre has always been a category ripe for derision, particularly because it tends to be a commercial signpost (the success of the “Twilight” franchise being the most recent example). There’s no question that “Tiger Eyes” fulfills a basic formula that panders to audiences less interested in being challenged than led through a familiar series of experiences. What’s surprising is that it actively avoids dumbing down its heroine’s journey. Not just a realization of Blume’s story, “Tiger Eyes” also pays homage to her skill.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Freestyle Releasing opens “Tiger Eyes” in New York and Los Angeles on Friday in addition to digital platforms, where it stands to perform well due to its unique demographic appeal (young women, families) in addition to the sizable fan base for Blume’s work.