Everyone always talks about how awful high school was. They talk about how they felt like losers and outcasts. How both the popular kids and the bullies relentlessly picked on them.
What a load of garbage.
I don’t mean to trivialize the pain of high school kids because it certainly does exist in a big way. But when it comes to the misery that often accompanies adolescence, my money is with middle school. It seems to me that 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls have a cruel streak that that their older and younger counterparts can only dream of matching. Maybe it’s because most kids don’t know who they are yet and the ones who seem to are considered freaks. I’m sure that hormones taking hold for the first time in their lives play a huge part. Either way, middle school stinks and it’s certainly not a time I would want to repeat.
The kids in “Bridge to Terabithia” don’t seem to attend a traditional middle school (actually, the movie never reveals their grade, which was apparently fifth in the book; still, it might as well be sixth). The main character, Jesse (Josh Hutcherson), has a young sister, May Belle (Bailee Madison), who rides the bus to the same school as he does. Maybe it’s because the characters live in such a rural area, the student population is smaller than that of Trigg County. Regardless, the viscous behavior typical of many middle schoolers is on full display. There’s the kid who obnoxiously says, “Beep, beep, beep, beep,” every time Jesse is near to show that his “loser detector” is still working. There’s the tough eighth grade girl who steals May Belle’s Twinkie and charges kids a dollar to use the bathroom during recess.
Jesse gets picked on mostly because he lives on a farm with a large family. His parents can’t afford to spoil him with things like new sneakers, which is especially awful because Jesse is interested in competitive running (not to mention art, which makes him very uncool). In one humiliating sequence at the beginning of the movie, he is horrified to learn that his mother tossed out his old sneakers because they were falling apart. He is forced to wear one of his sister’s hand-me-downs with pink stripes. He tries to color them over with a Magic Marker, but he’s not fooling anyone.
Then Jesse’s life changes. On the first day of school, he races the other boys and almost wins. The only reason he doesn’t is because there’s a new girl in town who is just a bit faster. He soon discovers that Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) has moved right down the street from him. She is different from the other students and starts to get teased and picked on too, despite being kind of pretty and fun to be around. When a teacher assigns the class to watch a television show and write an essay about it, Leslie informs the teacher that her family doesn’t have a TV because her parents disapprove, which causes the class to laugh and point as if she were from another planet. Really, this scene is stretching it a bit. The beloved book by Katherine Paterson may have been published 30 years ago, but do any parents still restrict their children from watching any and all TV?
Jesse and Leslie become best friends and spend their afternoons in the woods. Leslie invents a magical kingdom she names Terabithia and she and Jesse crown themselves king and queen. I won’t spoil the ending, even though I seem to be the only person my age that didn’t read this book for school when I was younger. I will say, though, that you might want to think twice before taking very young children to see the movie, as it is one of the saddest family films I’ve seen in a long time. Then again, the kids around me in the theater didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps it was because they weren’t mature enough to grasp the gravity of what was happening. But I’ll be honest. It kind of tore me up.
A movie like this, no matter how moving the story, soars or fails by the strength of the child actors, and I was not disappointed. Robb has previously been featured in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Because of Winn Dixie” (which I haven’t seen but heard was decent). Here she shows remarkable depth for a 13-year-old.
Hutcherson is equally compelling and I think will prove to be an actor to watch if he makes good choices. Watching the movie, you really care deeply about the kids and that carries the film. Plus, Hutcherson shows that he is up to the challenge of playing emotional scenes in a way that rings true, which is not a talent that every young (especially male) actor has, no matter how good they might be otherwise. As much as I love the third and fourth Harry Potter movies (forget the first two), and as much as I think Daniel Radcliffe has grown as an actor, I still wince when I watch “Prisoner of Azkaban” and he shouts, “He was their friend!” after he hears who might have murdered his parents. Even the great Alfonso Cuaron couldn’t quite get him to pull that line off.
Also, it would terribly wrong for me to not mention how good Madison. She’s not only adorable but makes every scene she’s in feel real. And this kid is only six years old! I’m sure she was probably five when the movie was shot and she’s already more talented than half the theater majors I knew in college.
One of the only flaws in “Terabithia” that keeps it from being an instant classic (although time might prove me wrong) is that the bullies in the movie often seem more like stereotypes than real children. At one point, we’re supposed to feel sorry for one of them after she gets her comeuppance, but I just couldn’t … that is, until a secret about her home life was revealed, but that’s something else altogether. In any other movie, these characters would be just fine, but the lead actors are so convincing that it takes the viewer out of the movie sometimes.
By the way, the main performances are so good that one almost forgets how good Zooey Deschanel is as a music teacher Jesse has a crush on or Robert Patrick as his father. I’ll be quite surprised if I see another live action family movie this rich for the rest of the year.
“Bridge to Terabithia” is rated PG. Some material may not be suitable for children.