March 25, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia is a milestone book in children's literature. Most children are different people after they finish reading it. Most stories they will have read before it focus on happiness and personal triumph. Terabithia goes for the jugular. The best thing that can be said about this film adaptation is that it aims for the same target with similar effectiveness.

Jesse Aarons is the only son of a poorer than average farmer in a a poorer than average town. For him, hand-me-downs from an older brother would be a blessing. The hand-me-downs he inherits from his older sister are considerably more humiliating. A quiet boy that bullies target, we meet him as he prepares to finally make his mark in the boy's footrace during recess. He's trained long and hard, and even his pink sneakers won't keep him down. In the end, he does beat all of the boys; but to his chagrin the new girl in school beats all of them. Neighbours in a region where houses are more than just a few feet apart, Jesse and Leslie ride the bus together and get off at the same stop. As the afternoons tick on, a bond slowly and hesitantly develops.

Jesse draws, and Leslie writes. In a poverty-stricken environment where despondency hangs heavy in the air, Jesse creative aspirations are uncommon and audacious. Leslie, the only child of rich novelists, is the first to appreciate and admire his talent. When Leslie uses an essay to bring an experience to life, Jesse is the only one who let her story carry him along.

When they find an old rope swing by a creek at back of Jesse's property, they use it to cross to a world of their own creation. Their imaginary friends and foes in this world — externalized with computer-generated creatures — prepare them to face the challenges and problems in their real lives. Leslie names their new world Terabithia. Loneliness and isolation, which have filled the life of each, cannot intrude. Their lives have never looked brighter.

(NOTE: To venture forward from here, I need to spoil something essential to the film. Unless you've read the book, continuing further will blunt the full impact of the story. You've been warned.)

When Jesse's vibrant young music teacher invites him to visit an art museum in the city, he is only too happy to accept. Ms. Edmonds is his first crush. His mother, half-asleep, acquiesces without really listening. Teacher and student have a fantastic time, as Jesse finds his horizons expanding. While he was gone with Ms. Edmonds, however, Leslie tried to cross to Terabithia alone. The rope swing, ancient and weathered when they found it, snapped. She hit her head when she landed in the gushing brook and drowned.

The plot turn is brutal enough. But like its source material, the film is unflinching as it addresses the aftermath. Jesse, unequipped to handle the enormity of his grief and guilt beyond his capacity to understand, shuts down. If Leslie's death doesn't bring you to tears, one of the key moments on his journey towards acceptance certainly will. Josh Hutcherson is making a career out of performances that rock me to the core, and his work as Jesse is no exception. He has fully internalized Jesse's loss here and the grief bubbles out of him in small, heartbreaking ways. His performance increasingly acknowledges Leslie's death even as he's still in denial, a feat many adult actors would have trouble pulling off. AnnaSophia Robb deserves credit for creating a character strange, warm and lovely enough that losing her hurts.

Robert Patrick's performance as Jesse's father is a stunning counterpoint to his role in Walk the Line. Both characters are poor farmers, and both express themselves in largely small but incredibly significant ways. Johnny Cash's father used every word and gesture to tear his son down. Jesse's dad may not show Jesse the same affection he shows his youngest, but he is fair, steady and well-intentioned. He trusts his son, and his son trusts him. Less significant than when he reprimands Jesse for doodling all day is the early times when he sees his son's artwork and holds back his disapproval. When Jesse pushes his little sister down and she goes running to her father, it is a validation of his character that he sees instantly through the particulars to the heart of his son's sorrow. When Jesse worries that God will damn Leslie to hell because she wasn't a follower, the way he meets his son's eyes as he answers brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it: he doesn't know God, he tells Jesse, but no God would send that girl to hell. When movies and television increasingly tell us that fathers must be absent, abusive or effeminate, Patrick bucks the trend.

There are a few decisions I disagree with. The use of CG in capturing Terabithia is excessive, particularly at the end. References to 2007 video game systems and technology were unwelcome. I read the book before iPods and blackberries, and it was written before walkmans and game boys. The story and setting provide for a timeless quality. The omission of such technology would have made the economic depression outside Jesse's immediate family more believable. Along the same lines, giving Jesse's family cable counters the financial desperation the film takes great pains to establish.

But these a quibbles. As one of the early readers traumatized by this book, I can say that the thoughts and emotions of the text were faithfully replicated. Not an ounce of the whimsy, hope, love, pain and loss was missing. The performances from the adults and children alike flawlessly zero us in on the emotional centre of the story. Bridge to Terabithia is destined to join Bambi and Old Yellers among the most depressing and beloved entries to family cinema. (****)

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