THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Last April, I covered the Maryland Film Festival for Gamut! Magazine. It was there that I met director Jay Russell (My Dog Skip), who was in Baltimore filming his adaptation of Natalie Babbitt's beloved young adult novel "Tuck Everlasting." Russell and screenwriter James V. Hart were there to take part in a seminar about translating books into films. After the discussion, I asked Russell what it was like working with one of his movie's stars - Ben Kingsley, an actor I greatly admire. "Let me tell you," the director said, "Ben Kingsley is giving a performance that he will be remembered for." From that moment, I couldn't wait to see Tuck Everlasting.

In the interim, I read Babbitt's book and became even more intrigued. This is not a typical young adult story. Alexis Bledel stars as Winnie Foster, a 15-year old girl who lives a very sheltered life. Her parents (Amy Irving and Victor Garber) are wealthy land owners who pride themselves on their proper behavior. When Winnie so much as participates in a simple baseball game, her mother scolds her for getting dirty. Winnie yearns to break free from her suffocating life. One day, she sneaks out of the house and goes for a walk in the woods her father owns. She encounters Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson), a slightly older boy who is drinking from a small spring located under a tree. Winnie inquires about the water he's drinking. Jesse won't answer. Then his brother Miles (Scott Bairstow) swoops Winnie onto a horse and "kidnaps" her to his family home, hidden away deep within the forest.

Alexis Bledel stars in the film version of the classic young adult novel Tuck Everlasting
At the home, she is introduced to Mae and Angus Tuck (Sissy Spacek and William Hurt). They promise Winnie that she will not be harmed. They merely need to keep her there for a few days to earn her trust before they can let her go. Jesse spends his days befriending Winnie and even starting to fall in love with her. Finally, he drops the bombshell: the spring he was drinking from is a fountain of youth, and each of his family members has consumed some of the water. Technically, Jesse is 107 years old, although he looks about 90 years younger than that. He seems to like being immortal, but Miles is clearly bitter. Angus takes Winnie on a boat ride and explains to her that no one must know about the spring because it would upset "the wheel" of life. "We're not really living," he tells her. "We're like rocks parked by the side of a river."

There is a subplot about someone known only as "the Man in the Yellow Suit" (Ben Kingsley), who knows about the spring and desperately wants to find the Tuck family so he can capitalize on it himself. Winnie encounters him early on, then again toward the end of the story. The climax comes when Jesse encourages Winnie to drink from the spring so that they can spend eternity together.

Tuck Everlasting is rated PG and it comes from Walt Disney Pictures. Despite this, the film is very faithful to Babbitt's novel, which is surprisingly dark. This is a story that asks the question: Is living forever really better than dying? On the surface, Winnie thinks that staying young forever would be a wonderful thing. Miles and Angus suggest otherwise - that immortality is more a chore than a blessing. This is heavy thematic material for young people, but the genius of Babbitt's story was that she made complex ideas palatable for youthful readers. Her message seemed to be that we shouldn't fear growing up or growing old. Russell and Hart have done a fine job remaining true to the spirit of the author's idea. The film doesn't shy away from complicated issues.

With such compelling ideas at its core, any film version of this story would need a solid cast to make it work. Tuck Everlasting assembles such fine actors as Spacek and Hurt, who always bring weight to anything they do. You really get a sense from them of how burdened Mae and Angus feel about their choice to live forever. It is clearly a mixed blessing at best. Holding her own against such top talent is Alexis Bledel, who is the movie's heart. She perfectly captures Winnie's essential dilemma: she wants to break free but is also afraid of the most independent step she could take. It's a very understated but effective performance.

And Ben Kingsley? Well, the man's a genius in my book. Will he be remembered for his performance as the greedy mystery man whose desperation is hidden by a cool, calculating facade? Only time will tell, but he is exceptionally good here, and just one more reason to see this well-crafted and moving film.

( out of four)

Tuck Everlasting is rated PG for some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Return to The Aisle Seat