“Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.” – Natalie Babbitt, in Tuck Everlasting.
Tonight I rewatched one of my all-time favourite films, Tuck Everlasting (2002). Once again, I was struck by the sheer beauty of this simple and honest love story. Director Jay Russell, who also directed My Dog Skip (2000), tells this moving tale with gentleness and compassion.
Tuck Everlasting, which is based Natalie Babbitt’s novel of the same title, tells the story of Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel) and her adventures in the first weeks of the 1914 American summer. As the daughter of an incredibly wealthy family, the only thing Winnie finds more stifling than the heat, is the formality of her rigid lifestyle. One day, when out walking in the woods that surround her beautiful Victorian home, Winnie stumbles upon a young man drinking from a pool of water near a tree. His name is Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson) and both he and Winnie are equally astonished at having encountered the other. Jesse’s brother, Miles (Scott Bairstow) arrives on the scene, furious that Winnie has discovered their presence in the woods. Miles grabs Winnie and rides away with her, with Jesse scrambling along on foot behind. Miles takes Winnie to a small cottage in the woods, where the four members of the Tuck family live together – Jesse, Miles, and their parents, Angus (William Hurt) and Mae (Sissy Spacek). They all seem concerned that Winnie has discovered some great secret about them, and are hesitant to let her return home. It is decided that she should stay until the Tucks feel they can trust her, against Winnie’s initial protestations and enormous displeasure. However, the Tucks treat her well, and as time passes, Winnie begins to feel more and more at home with them. As Winnie soon discovers, there is something mysteriously different about this family, who lead peaceful lives, hidden away in the heart of the woods. As the voice-over narration describes:
“Winnie Foster was beginning to lose track of time. Had she been there a day? A week? A month? It seemed to Winnie that the Tucks lived in a way the rest of the world had forgotten. They where never in a hurry and did things the slow way. For the first time Winnie felt free to explore, to ask questions, to play.”
Meanwhile, a shady individual (Ben Kingsley) simply referred to in the credits as “The Man in the Yellow Suit”, arrives in the town of Tree Gap looking for Jesse’s family and whistling an eerie tune – the same melody that plays from Mae’s music box. Thinking that their daughter has been kidnapped, Winnie’s parents arrange to sell the woods to this strange gentleman in exchange for information about her whereabouts. Although Winnie and Jesse soon fall in love, they are just as quickly torn apart, but not before Jesse has revealed his family’s great secret to Winnie. Ultimately, Winnie is left with a big decision to make – one that will completely alter the course of her life, perhaps forever.
One of the most striking features of this film is its gorgeous production design. Whether we are within the walls of the Fosters’ stately home, or chasing through fields of tall grass with Winnie and Jesse, everything looks beautiful and aesthetically harmonious. We are treated to the visual splendour of the Maryland countryside, captured in a serious of breathtaking landscapes and close-ups that reveal the beauty of nature. Edited together using dissolves, these nature sequences become dreamlike in their slowness and tranquility.
The camera frames each of the characters with gentleness and care, allowing us to empathise with all of them, except for the villainous man in the yellow suit. We are lead to care for Winnie’s stern and seemingly cold mother (Amy Irving) whose character is rendered in a respectful and compassionate way, and our hearts break for Miles when he recounts the tragic story of what happened to his wife and children. Cinematically, at moments of vulnerability or great joy, DOP James L. Carter illuminates the characters’ faces with the soft golden glow of lamp or firelight. During moments of wonder or discovery, they are lit by dappled sunlight that filters through the forest canopy. However, no character is treated with more tenderness by the camera than Winnie, who is also cradled by the comforting words of the female voice-over narration. Even though she is an adolescent girl in the process of discovering love and sexuality, she is never presented to us in an overtly sexualised manner, even in the scenes where she changes clothes, swims with Jesse in the river, or lets her hair down and dances with Jesse around a fire. Rather, the camera and the voice-over become like a warm maternal presence – protecting Winnie and revealing the beauty of life and the world around her – treating Winnie in the way that a mother would her child.
The soundtrack of Tuck Everlasting is also beautiful in its constant shifting between whimsicality and folk strains. At times, full of wonder and mystery, and at others, upbeat and jolly, William Ross’s score renders the world beyond Winnie’s gate as both magical and playful. The theme song demonstrates this perfectly:
If you have not yet had a chance to see this beautiful film, I would highly recommend that you do. The plot is not incredibly complex, but presents itself in a simple and sincere fashion. Fans of more tangled and convoluted narratives might find Tuck Everlasting dull or cheesy for this reason, but could still appreciate the film for its uncomplicated beauty and its moving reflection on what it means to be alive.