Judy Blume understands pain, but she also seems to know how important laughter is. Maybe that’s why the beloved novelist behinds 1970’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” has guided multiple generations through the awkwardness and agony of puberty.
But the writer and her director son Lawrence took a more serious route for her first foray onto the big screen. The adaptation of Blume’s less recognizable 1981 title “Tiger Eyes” keeps the heart of her novels, but replaces the laughter with a heavy dose of sentimentality.
Adapted by mother and son, the movie closely follows the novel. The teen protagonist, Davey Wexler (Willa Holland), has suddenly lost her father, and his death has left her mother, Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson), spiraling into a pill-popping oblivion. In the absence of a competent matriarch, the family, including Davey’s younger brother, moves temporarily from Atlantic City to Los Alamos, N.M., to stay with Gwen’s fastidious sister Bitsy (Cynthia Stevenson) and brother-in-law Walter (Forrest Fyre).
Most of the threads from the book end up in the film, and while the Blumes get points for staying true to source material, the movie doesn’t have the time to give each narrative the attention it deserves. Davey deals with so much, from a nearly comatose mother to a constantly hectoring uncle. Bitsy sees the Wexlers’ arrival as the chance to have the children she always wanted and turns into the worst kind of helicopter parent, concerned about everything from Davey’s bike-riding habits to her new friends.
There also are subplots involving Davey’s volunteer job at a hospital, an alcoholic friend and a love interest, a slightly older Native American rock climber and aspiring physicist who calls himself Wolf (Tatanka Means). And all the while Davey struggles through keeping her misery over her father’s death mostly to herself.
The cast holds its own, especially Holland, who communicates a mix of teen angst and real sorrow. But there’s little Fyre and Stevenson could do to overcome their heavy-handed lines as the worrywart aunt and her emotionally unavailable, all-business husband. Some of the musical choices are equally unimaginative, laying an auditory film of emotion over already dewy-eyed subject matter.
As the movie continues, certain subplots fall away and the simplification does amazing things for the story, which starts to awaken genuine compassion. A flashback to the night Davey’s father died proves especially harrowing despite some of the sappiness that came before.
Craving restraint from Blume feels so wrong. During a far less confessional time, she opened a dialogue about the uncomfortable subjects teens wanted to discuss but felt they couldn’t. And in some ways “Tiger Eyes” echoes those sentiments, as Davey learns the freedom of uncorking her emotions.
But when the direction, music and dialogue painstakingly echo the gloomy themes, self-expression starts to feel self-indulgent.
PG-13. At Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains thematic material including a violent incident, some strong language and teen drinking. 92 minutes.