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'Tiger Eyes': Son steers Judy Blume tale on an apt, gentle course ★★★

A gentle, honest and shrewdly realized film such as "Tiger Eyes," based on the 1981 Judy Blume novel, shouldn't have to fight for a moviegoer's attention or an exhibitor's screens (it opens at a single Chicago-area theater this weekend). But it's worth seeking out.

Co-adapted, with his mother, by director Lawrence Blume, this modest young adult winner certainly worked for me, and I'm a year or two out of the young adult demographic.

Considering her literary output and success, Blume has been scarce on television and in the movies. (She's best known for "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret.") Partly, I think, it's because she packs her stories with incidents and issues that, in the wrong hands, can easily turn into Life Lessons 101.

"Tiger Eyes" takes it easy, though, and as a result the story of 17-year-old Davey, a grieving Atlantic City, N.J., girl played by an astute and affecting Willa Holland, takes us into its confidence.

A tragic mishap leaves Davey without a father. Her mother (Amy Jo Johnson) packs up Davey and her younger brother and relocates the family to Los Alamos, N.M., to live with an aunt and uncle. Davey makes a couple of crucial new friends, one a girl (Elise Eberle) with a burgeoning drinking problem, the other a Native American boy (Tatanka Means) who introduces Davey to the land, the culture and the healing powers of his ancestral grounds. Russell Means, Tatanka Means' father, plays his screen father, dying of cancer in the Los Alamos hospital where Davey volunteers. In real life, the actor died after filming was completed.

Already, we're talking about a fair number of plot points and conflicts in "Tiger Eyes," but even the less sympathetic characters (Cynthia Stevenson portrays Davey's tightly wound aunt) are given verifiably human traits. That's Blume all over, and while son Lawrence directs with more heart than visual inspiration, he's promising. Holland makes full sense of Davey's defensive maneuvers and prickly vulnerabilities. Realizing they have differing target audiences, the younger characters in "Tiger Eyes" make the average Disney or Nickelodeon tweencom poseurs even more appallingly shrill by comparison.

I do wish, though, one of the Michelle Branch songs on the soundtrack didn't try to work the phrase "invokes empathy" into a lyric. Those are two well-meaning words never meant to be sung out loud.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Tiger Eyes' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for thematic material, including a violent incident, and some teen drinking)
Running time: 1:32
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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