Majestic performances by its adult stars and a surprisingly complex one from a young actress best known for TV's too-cute-by-half Gilmore Girls lift this adaptation of Natalie Babbitt's classic children's novel past its plot holes and into a state of lightheaded grace. The story revolves around headstrong 14-year-old Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel), stifled under the corsets of her parents' expectations during the summer of 1914. Bolting from home after receiving an ultimatum, she stumbles upon 17-year-old Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson) deep in her family's woods. At least he looks 17; he later reveals that he's actually 104. His settler family drank from a spring which, to their astonishment, proved the literal fountain of youth. They've remained the same physical ages ever since, their bodies healing instantly from injuries. Eternal life isn't paradise; life comes and goes while they remain, as one Tuck puts it, "like rocks." Winnie learns all this after elder Tuck son Miles (Scott Bairstow) spirits her off to his family's remote cabin lest she reveal their existence; patriarch Angus (William Hurt) intimates that the family may even have killed to protect its secret. Earth-mother Mae (a deep and shining Sissy Spacek) intervenes and the Tucks take Winnie in; while her parents (a fine Victor Garber and a stilted Amy Irving) search for her with bloodhounds and constabulary, Winnie falls into first love with the sweet-natured, well-traveled Jesse. (At least for her it's first love; the film doesn't address the fact that there's something creepy about a 104-year-old wanting a dewy-eyed, 14-year-old virgin. In the book, Winnie's ten and the relationship different.) Meanwhile, the Tucks are being stalked by the single-minded Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley), an enigmatic, seemingly supernatural presence. The film is heavy with meaning — its message that "You don't have to live forever; you just have to live" comes in exactly those words — and occasionally marred by purple narration; it's also a mite sloppy in terms of time-passage and geography. Yet its mythic characters feel like genuine, hurting human beings. Spacek and Hurt create eternals unaffected by vampiric jadedness, vividly conveying Angus and Mae's temporal isolation through voice and expression alone; Kingsley's larger-than-life hunter has his reasons, however wrongheaded. And like those old pros, Bledel projects the quicksilver contradictions of Winnie's character without words. A sparsely distributed, low-budget version of Babbitt's novel was released in 1980, and went on to find an appreciative audience on video.
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