Tuck Everlasting
Starring: Alexis Bledel, Ben Kingsley, Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, Jonathan Jackson, William Hurt
Director:

Jay Russell

Writing credits: Natalie Babbitt (novel), Jeffrey Lieber, James V. Hart
Distributor: Walt Disney
Rated: PG for some violence.
  (USA 2002)

There comes a time in a girl's life when she starts to feel, well, a bit weird, as if something's changing and she doesn't quite understand what. For me it was occurred at the age of nine, while watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. It continued over the next few months, as I spent a good portion of my leisure time sitting with my best friend poring over Beatle magazines. For others it was a few years later. These days it probably occurs around the age of seven, now that the boy bands really are boys. It's at this age when girls start reading what I call the Literature of Initiation. A subset of the more generic "coming of age" novel, which deals with the question of young people finding their place in the world, the Literature of Initiation is primarily a metaphor for introduction to sexuality. Much of the classic literature that are part and parcel of the lives of preteen girls is of this genre, which hides the metaphor of defloration underneath a story that resonates with preteens.

The standard Literature of Initiation plot goes something like this: a [spoiled/spunky/spirited] girl who either a) has overprotective, cold, distant parents; b) lives with overprotective, cold, distant relatives; and/or c) attends an overprotective boarding school headed by a cold and distant schoolmaster/mistress, meets a male character, usually a boy but sometimes an adult male, who introduces her to all kinds of wonderful things, which changes her life and shows her the person she can be if she only has the courage to follow her destiny. From Little Women to Madeleine L'Engle's lesser-known novels such as The Small Rain and The Moon By Night, to the mother of all Metaphorical Initiation Novels, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, these novels hide their psychosexual symbolism behind their strong female heroines and usually androgynous, nonthreatening male initiators. The hook of Initiation Literature, and the aspect that makes it safe for preteens, is that the boy is transitory; a catalyst in the life of the heroine, whom she must leave to go off and live her fabulous life of wonderful accomplishments.

Natalie Babbit's 1975 novel Tuck Everlasting is another entry into the Literature of Initiation, and Jay Russell, who directed the nostalgia-laden MY DOG SKIP, is just the schmaltzmeister to do it justice. In this film, Babbitt's ten-year-old Winnie Foster has been turned into a spoiled AND spirited AND spunky lass of fifteen. It is 1914, and Winnie (Alexis Bledel) is literally fenced in by her oh-so-proper mother (Amy Irving, still looking as pinched and suffering as she did in TRAFFIC) and devoted but cold and distant father (Victor Garber). One day she escapes her fenced yard in the New England town of Treegap to explore the woods surrounding her home. She discovers a boy drinking from a spring. The boy is Jesse Tuck, younger son of a rather odd family who lives, unbeknownst to anyone else, in those woods. It turns out that the waters of the spring bestow eternal life when ingested, and the Tucks have all partaken of its waters some ninety-plus years ago. What transpires is somewhat of a kidnapping, but it is a kidnapping in the way one takes home a stray dog one finds wandering lost in the street.

Mae, the Tuck matriarch (Sissy Spacek) is thrilled at the new arrival, but older brother Miles (Scott Bairstow) is not at all happy about this state of affairs, and paterfamilias Angus (William Hurt, in yet another of his highly stylized, laid-back-unto-comatose performances) seems concerned not just about the possibility of the family being discovered, but also is alarmed about the growing relationship between his son and this outsider.

Winnie's frantic parents begin a search for their daughter, aided by a very strange man (Ben Kingsley, in a performance that is Don Logan from Sexy Beast morphing into "Bob" from Twin Peaks while wearing Ralph Kiner's old Sportschannel broadcasting jacket). It seems that this Man in Yellow is also searching for the Tuck family, for reasons of his own.

Should Winnie partake of the spring's waters as well, thus joining Jesse in eternal adolescent youth and presumably, perpetual sexual tension? Or should she take Angus' admonitions to heart, that death is part of the cycle of life, and to be immortal is not actually living, but is merely sitting like rocks at the edge of the stream?

Russell's direction, combined with cinematographer James L. Carter duplicating the same glorious, nostalgic, sun-dappled photography he used with such effect in MY DOG SKIP, manages to keep the flow of sap at a mere trickle, while the inherent weirdness of the story takes care of any remaining danger that this might turn into a maudlin weepfest. For TUCK EVERLASTING is at its core nothing less than a vampire film with the eroticism surgically excised, with the androgynous Jesse standing in for Gary Oldman's hyperromantic Prince Vlad opposite Bledel's Winnie, standing in for Winona Ryder's Mina Harker. Certainly the melancholy that suffuses even the simple, close-knit, seemingly normal lives of the Tucks, from Spacek's forced gaiety to Hurt's taciturn wariness, makes immortality seem somewhat less than desirable. Imagine living in a constantly-changing world in which a young man dare not marry, lest his beloved grow old and die, wherein one dare not have close friends, lest they declare you a witch or satanist and burn your house down.

TUCK EVERLASTING has been meticulously crafted to reproduce the look of its time, from the starched high collars and pigeon-breasted blouses of the women to the overstuffed furniture in the Foster home. If Winnie is just a tad too spirited for her time, dancing joyously in her camisole and petticoat in front of a burning fire like an extra from MONSOON WEDDING, she certainly looks marvelous doing so. As rendered by Alexis Bledel (a name with which the trailers indicate I should be familiar; it seems she appears on a television program called The Gilmore Girls), she manages to keep enough riot grrl out of her speech to be convincing. In the Initiator/Catalyst role of Jesse, Jonathan Jackson is one of those pretty, androgynous boys that preteens find irresistable. With a full mouth that makes him look like he could be Olivier Martinez' significantly more hygienic American cousin, he manages to convey a person who is both perpetually seventeen, and at the same time, very very old. And if he can't manage to make a cornball line like "I'll love you till the day I die", coming from an immortal, sound anything but ridiculous, it's not for lack of effort. He and Foster have a sweetness and innocence in their scenes together, as befits a generation that predates Britney Spears by many decades.

For all that TUCK EVERLASTING is beautifully crafted, it is utterly predictable, its last half hour dragging unnecessarily. Director Russell makes the fatal mistake of violating the fundamental rule of storytelling: "Show, don't tell." The film relies far too heavily on narration throughout, and instead of showing us the supposedly extraordinary life Winnie lives after making her choice, he relies on the narration to tell us so. James Cameron understood the importance of showing the results of the boy/catalyst's role in the heroine's life as an important aspect of translating bringing the metaphors inherent in the Literature of Initiation to the screen. In showing us a montage of photographs of his protagonist's "life lived well", in TITANIC, he not only created a powerful illustration of the passage of time, but showed us a tantalizing glimpse of that life. In this film, a lovely dissolve of downtown Treegap circa 1914 into downtown Treegap circa 2000 accompanied by a shot of the now T-shirt clad and motorcycle-riding Jesse, still seventeen after all these years, starts to provide that glimpse for us, but then leaves us wondering.

TUCK EVERLASTING is not without its flaws, but it's a haunting, beautifully-rendered film. Like THE ROOKIE, this film demonstrates that "family entertainment" need not shun difficult issues and need not insult its audience's intelligence. If you have a daughter at that fleeting age just before the sullen teenager bug kicks in, go see this film with her and then talk about it over an ice cream sundae. It may be your last opportunity to do so.

 

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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