"Second-Act Problems" is not a spirit animal, folks.
Tiger Eyes isn't very good, but the source material — a Judy Blume novel, adapted and directed here by her son Lawrence, with her help — isn't very good either, if memory serves. It's teen melodrama, with a side of buttery "tragedy will attract a good-looking and wise boy" wish fulfillment, but Blume Sr. sold it because she was sure of it. She didn't lose her nerve. The film seems to deflate halfway through, to realize what it is and lose its appetite for itself.
The "plot," for those of you not girls in the '80s: Davey's father dies tragically in a convenience-store hold-up, after naming his daughter "Davey." …Just kidding, but this is kind of what I mean about Blume's pitch; as a kid, a kid with a name half my fifth grade class also had, I would have loved a name like that. After another break-in, Davey's mom Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson) decides she can't cope alone, and moves Davey (Willa Holland) and her little brother (Lucien Dale) to Los Alamos for a temporary change of scene that lasts nearly a year. Living with her Aunt Bitsy (Cynthia Stevenson, serving officious realness as usual) and Uncle Walter (Forrest Fyre) (no…seriously), Davey makes friends with a budding alcoholic, Jane (Elise Eberle), and Los Alamos High — and a Magical Native American, Wolf (Tatanka Means), whom she meets in an arroyo.
It's all a little much, and yet nothing new, and I haven't reread the book in 25 years, so for all I know it's just as thrown together as the film. But after a solid first half featuring a natural performance from Holland and relatively low-key use of Native-American culture (Means's father, activist and actor Russell Means, plays Wolf's father, a patient whom Davey meets and bonds with while candy-striping), it all starts to fall apart, the already intrusive ovarian soundtrack leaned on even harder, tertiary characters' fathers made to say "I really love you" to their daughters when meeting up after a day of Christmas shopping.
For every elegant moment — the kids playing Monopoly, at least partly because it reminds them of home; movie snow that looks real — a dozen others come out of left field and/or land squarely on the nose. Is a kid from New Mexico really going to ask a dude in braids, "Wolf? What kind of a name is that?" Is Uncle Walter really going to rip on a kid's dead father — and by extension, her mother, who's probably two rooms over in the second place — to her face like that, and then backhand her for giving him lip, only for the entire dust-up never to come up again? Shouldn't Gwen's bitchy, "Oh, are they still my children?" have some lead-up even within the scene, never mind that the entire subplot from the book — that Bitsy takes over while Gwen is sinking in grief and dysfunction — is boiled down to "Gwen throws away her sedatives, Gwen goes on a few dates, Gwen bristles very slightly during a cookie-making exercise, Gwen moves the fam back to Jersey"? And if you want to develop Jane as a Type-A neurotic whose drinking is getting out of control, how about you…develop it? Nice work by props on the stunt vomit (though that same attention to detail might have gone towards the newspaper with Davey's father's obit in it — "Camber of Commerce"? Why does the PA in charge of The Fake Tribune always half-ass it?), but that's not story. That's stunt vomit. (My response to Adam Sheets's risible cross-eyed silent-movie acting of Wexler Sr.'s death scene: real vomit. You got shot, homes, not kicked in the nuts.)
The stories are there, waiting for director Blume Jr. to take some time with them, but I get the feeling he'd rather have underdone them than done them "wrong" and have to hear about it from Mom — and if that's the case, why bother. The material isn't Tolstoy, but it's solid and it has something to offer if you don't sell it out, and at times, Blume Jr. does show some brio, like the scene with the kids rolling drunk down the hill. But the second half is practically on auto-pilot; when Davey finds out Wolf Sr. has died, not just the acting but basic blocking is lurchy and all over the place. Did Blume Jr. just give that to the second AD and go to Sedona for the day? By the time we fade out on Davey, joyously cavorting in crystal-clear Atlantic City surf (…precisely) while Michelle Branch hernias about things making you strong, I'd checked out. Why should I care anymore, if the director doesn't?
Holland is great, perfectly cast, and Means Jr. has an awkward charisma I quite like; he acquits himself well in a thankless "for it is I, Three Wisdoms" role, and makes an interminable drum-circle scene more watchable. I hope we see more of Teo Olivares, who plays Reuben, too. The kid has a nose straight out of mid-century French film. But Tiger Eyes is too reverent, too childish in its storytelling overall — it's not the "good adventure" Wolf Sr. speaks of so pointedly.
Tags: Adam Sheets Amy Jo Johnson Cynthia Stevenson Elise Eberle Forrest Fyre Judy Blume Lawrence Blume Lucien Dale Michelle Branch movies Russell Means shut up Julie Emrick Tatanka Means Teo Olivares Willa Holland