Childhood has consequences
Bridge to Terabithia, DIR: Gabor Csupo (Now Playing)
Dismissed as a kingdom where no one dies, childhood more often can be prison where no one may grieve, or even feel. An epoch where fears are dismissed as phantoms and needs as whims. It proves near impossible to tell a story wherein the uncontrollable drives and inexpressible pains of youth get treated as real. The narrative must be broad enough to be understood by those children who have only the first inkling of the existence of the questions being addressed; the subtext must be intricate enough to help walk the audience through the answers. The story needs to work itself out in self-similar, increasingly complex, almost fractal-like ways.
The 1978 novel Bridge to Terabithia has endured as a go-to book for thinking parents and ambitious schools because it did all this. Katharine Paterson’s young characters responded to poverty, cruelty, and death with moral seriousness. It’s an emotionally difficult book to read, and asserts bravely that children should be encouraged to read such painful fare.
It was hard to imagine that Disney, in their adaptation, would permit the creation of a film that was hard to watch. To their credit, they have, though they’ve willfully hidden that fact in the advertising. Bridge To Terabithia will disturb more kids than it will uplift. But, say I, fuck anyone who takes a kid to the movies to shut her up.
Tough, serious, and sad, Bridge to Terabithia isn’t a downer. In many ways, it’s fun, and even a tiny bit cool. Usually kids and cool is a bad combination—_Labyrinth_ turned a whole generation off of David Bowie. Even when not so dreadfully embarrassing, the nod to cool often regards the audience as a hipster incarnation of the medieval miniature adult (see Iggy Pop/Patty Hearst in the Adventures of Pete and Pete). Here, though, the choice of Zooey Deschanel as fifth grader Jesse Aaron’s music teacher/lust object proves inspired. She’s dreamily beautiful, effortlessly stylish, and familiar to kids from her turn in the treacle-y Elf. Cast pretty much as her image, she’s positioned as microcosm of the mission of the film: to show that, for good and bad, there’s more to life than American Idols. Still, she, like all adults in the narrative of childhood, both appears only hazily and is a harbingers of terrible things.
To escape the world of adults, Jesse Owens and Leslie Burke invent Terabithia, the name they give the woodsy hideout where they play make believe. Jesse is a poor, picked-on, effeminate boy navigating the powerlessness of poverty and demands of nascent manhood. Leslie’s a rich, picked-on weirdo girl who just can’t mope enough. They’re psychological archetypes, an overly serious middle kid/first son, and a precocious liar only-child. In Terabithia, they act out their fears to make sense of the endless shit piled upon them. They come up with predictable metaphors—the school bully is re-envisioned as a troll and they as king and queen with super powers. But metaphors get predictable through overuse, and get used because they hold an innate truth. Unfortunately, the uninspired CGI used to bring these monsters to life sometimes makes these truths ring false. Bridge To Terabithia shows the workings of children’s imagination, and how important work is done there, but the pro-forma visual presentation also shows how impoverished this imagination is quickly becoming.
Addressing the internal lives of children is dangerous. They’re too fragile for adult hands but too critical to be ignored. It’s the Snuffleupagus conundrum. After decades where no Sesame Street grown-ups could see Big Bird’s imaginary friend, he became visible. The producers decided (invisible) Snuffy gave kids the dangerous impression that adults don’t believe them when they say unlikely things. It’s pretzel logic, of course, since adults don’t listen to children at all. It’s also sad. Asserting the predominance of literal truth limits children’s opportunities to make sense of the world and, like other literal limits, kills their souls.
Robert Patrick, playing the same stern, loving, poverty-wracked father he mastered in Walk The Line, proves an able soul killer. Comfortably typecast, Patrick brings a strong sense of how children view adults. Just as Deschanel is used to teach 10-year-old boys to aim high in their choice of lust objects, Patrick’s here to remind parents how hard it is to avoid indoctrinating kids. He weighs young Jesse down with adult responsibilities but ignores Jesse’s moral concerns. When Jesse wakes up at dawn to hike through the woods and release a badger he caught tearing through their greenhouse (rather than seeing the caged animal shot), his father berates him for childishness. But recognizing oncoming brutality and acting to stop it is pretty damn mature. Time and again, dad tells Jesse that aping his vision of adulthood is a more important task than growing up. And time and again, the film proves him wrong.
When Leslie dies crossing the stream to Terabithia, Jesse is rent with guilt. Leslie’s parents assure him that Leslie loved him. He carries the dark secret that he wished she would go away. His father assures him that even though she was an atheist, Leslie won’t go to hell. This provides as little comfort to Jesse as empty sentiment could. Even Deschanel’s sing-a-long of “Ooh Child” turns him cold, though she, in fact, has a nice voice and calming demeanor. Though the misguided adults want to be comforting, they treat the death of Jesse’s best friend as a really bad skinned knee. They smother his grief; they won’t let him be inconsolable, since inconsolable is uncontrollable.
As a pain killer, Jesse bequeaths his magic to his little sister, and here the CGI, which had been cheap and shitty, becomes unwatchable. So bad, it has to be on purpose. Jesse’s sweet, Barbie loving sister is as banal as Leslie was wild. Both Terabithia and every single moment of his life are shown as anemic when compared to what he had when Leslie was by his side. That’s the bitch of death, and it’s a rare fine thing to show a child feel it.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.