Tuck Everlasting and White Oleander (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Mothers and Daughters

Some of my fondest memories of childhood are the nights my mother and I would sneak out to the movies. What a treat to have my mom to myself and have a real girls’ night out — I imagine it must have made me feel terribly grown up, to be going out to the movies, at age 8 or 9, without my brothers and at night. That’s conjecture — I don’t really remember at all how the act of going to the movies made me feel.

What I do recall vividly are the movies themselves. Freaky Friday. The Bad News Bears. Movies like that. I’ll have to ask my mom whether it was a conscious decision to take me to movies about strong, spunky little girls — maybe she’s sorry to have contributed in such a way to my continuing hardheadedness. Boy, did I think Tatum O’Neal and Jodie Foster were cool.
If my mom and I could rewind 25 years, we’d probably be sneaking out to see Tuck Everlasting. No, it’s not about a scrappy girl wise beyond her tender years — or wiseacre beyond her tender years. Kids are nicer now, and Tuck‘s Winnie Foster is just the kind of very nice, respectable, well-behaved girl we all (supposedly) want our daughters to be. But if Tatum and Jodie were unbroken colts who needed (and got) just enough taming to be civilized, and showed girls of the 70s that the middle ground didn’t have to be so dull, then Alexis Bledel, who plays Winnie, does the same for today’s little girls: She’s the little lady who learns not to compromise herself too much to the expectations of parents and society.

Tuck is based upon the apparently beloved Natalie Babbitt novel — I’d never even heard of it, but I can clearly see what’s to love: 15-year-old Winnie, trapped in her literally straitlaced, upper-class Edwardian world, yearns to break free, if only for an afternoon’s walk in the woods or the chance to run bases in a game of street baseball. Her parents — played to formal, confined perfection by Amy Irving (Traffic) and Victor Garber (Legally Blonde) — love her dearly but err, as parents often do, too much on the side of caution in their protection of her. It’s a situation that, in the big picture, many a young girl can identify with.

And the lovely romantic fantasy that comes to her rescue is one that plays well to misfit girls and boys alike: the delicious idea that a family who appreciates the inner, secret you will sweep you away to your “real” life. Winnie finds hers hiding in the very woods her father owns: the Tucks, whose big family secret makes them more misfit than Winnie could imagine and more desperate for company than they’re willing to admit. Angus and Mae Tuck (William Hurt: A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Sissy Spacek: In the Bedroom, both delightful) are the sweet flip side of her parents, jovial and earthy, and their sons are a revelation, too: adult Miles (Scott Bairstow: The Postman), who nurses a simmering anger, wearing on his sleeve more emotion than evinced by both of her parents combined, and 17-year-old Jesse (Jonathan Jackson: Insomnia).

Ah, Jesse. He’s dreamy. He’s free-spirited. He’s just what a sheltered girl like Winnie needs to stir first feelings of delicate passion. Bledel and Jackson are, as is usually the case, older than their characters — both are 20, and just a few years makes a tremendous difference at this age — but their tentative explorations of young love are charmingly portrayed, and with delicacy enough so that you never have to cover the children’s eyes.

The things that’ll unsettle kids are the things they’ll just be on the edge of starting to understand… just like Winnie. Like the mysterious Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley: Triumph of Love), who’s hunting the Tucks and, like a big bad wolf hinting at the darker side of love — lust — lets Winnie know, in as politely sleazy a way as possible, how attractive she is. Like the choice Winnie must make already about the course the rest of her life will take. Ever so gently as they’re presented, Tuck Everlasting is full of scary realities of growing up, of the dangers and decisions inherent in navigating successfully to adulthood.

And that’s a good thing. It’s what makes for a story that stays with kids, becomes more meaningful to them as grownups, and will make them want to share it with their own children years from now.

Odd as it may seem at first, White Oleander — the many-ways-in-which-women-can-be-messed-up flick — covers much the same ground, though from a wholly unfanciful and much more pragmatic perspective. It’s the kind of movie Mom and I would have snuck out to when I was a young teenager, when the far more blatant hints of sex and drugs would be slightly less likely to make me squirm in my seat with embarrassment.

Here it’s Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman: The Thirteenth Floor) who’s the misfit searching for a family to love her real self, though it’s not by choice. She was fine and happy with her socially and morally unconventional artist mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer: I Am Sam)… until Ingrid went to prison for killing her boyfriend in a fit of jealousy. Now, Astrid — exactly the same age as Winnie — is shuttled from one dysfunctional foster home to another, molding herself temporarily to each interim-mom just at the stage in her life where she needs to find out who, exactly, she is herself. There’s the contradictory, clothes-obsessed, born-again Christian Starr (Robin Wright Penn: The Last Castle) and then the insecure, immature actress Claire (Renée Zellweger: Bridget Jones’s Diary) — both of whom want to be her best friend, both of whom succeed for a while. And then there’s Astrid’s Jesse, Paul (Patrick Fugit: Almost Famous), an artist and fellow denizen of the state foster home Astrid does a few stints in — he’s content to simply let her be herself, something none of the women in her life, including Ingrid, can do.

For all its explicitness — it doesn’t dance around real issues facing kids today, from depressive alienation to substance abuse to sexual exploitation — and for the flawlessness of its performances, Oleander never touches the raw nerve it should, surprisingly so: the film comes from British director Peter Kosminsky, who gave us the emotionally devastating TV film Warriors. Has he gone Hollywood? Oleander seems constructed to win Oscar nominations instead of the minds and hearts of audiences, feng-shuied into fabricated exactness at the expense of an organic authenticity. What’s pretty and properly arranged at first glance becomes more artificial and colder the longer you look.

Not a filmgoing experience, in other words, that today’s moms and daughters, sneaking out for a night at the movies, are likely to look back on with particular fondness.

Tuck Everlasting
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG for some violence
official site | IMDB

White Oleander
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements concerning dysfunctional relationships, drug content, language, sexuality and violence
official site | IMDB

share and enjoy