Out beyond the back of their two houses she introduces him to Terabithia, a world of miniature flying soldiers and hairy beasts that battle within the woods.* Is it real or is it imaginary? Whilst we never know for sure the assumption is that it comes from within - you must close your eyes and then open them as if for the first time.
Is Terabithia and what goes on there symbolic of anything?**
It's pretty clear that Leslie and Jess are creative kids who love to jump head first into stories. Even if their lives were perfect, storytelling and exploration would be a part of them. Having said that, while there is no crude equivalence between their normal lives and their play worlds, Leslie and Jess' vivid imaginations are a testing ground for challenges that need to be faced and decisions that need to be taken in real life.
The first images of drawings flying over the countryside are an indication that the two planes co-exist rather than mirror each other.
There are, nevertheless, one or two parallels, and maybe it is hard not to see them. Leslie and Jess' families are distant and therefore they withdraw too. Leslie's parents are writers and spend all their time squirreled away. Jess and his father's relationship is stuck in a rut and they seem able to communicate only with coldness and resentment.
At school they are outcasts. The rest of their class shuns them. Jess is bullied because he is poorer than the others and Leslie is picked on because of her odd style and devil-may-care spunk. The reasons for the bullying may seem a little weak, dramatically, but it really helps to show that bullying is always fundamentally unfair. There should never appear to be a good reason to bully.
In Terabithia the two children can make their own home.
They are free to develop and grow in Terabithia. It is hard for them to mature running up against the constraints of class politics or awkward family life. Away from the glare of the big world they can begin to be who they want to be and who they are meant to be.
The two kids (on their way to becoming adults) relish their adventures, with the greatest adventure of all being their time getting to know each other. As Leslie waves goodbye in the rain, we can see Jess stop and stare and begin to smile. Has he fallen in love?
Bridge to Terabithia, as successfully as any other film, shows the spectrum of a young man's reactions towards girls and women. He has an overwhelming crush on his music teacher whilst a deeper, stronger affection grows between him and Leslie. Leslie, who shares his interests, and protects his sister Maybelle, is best seen, I think, not as a friend or a girlfriend but as both - a soulmate.
These characters are believable. Their conversation about God and religion, which could have been clumsy, is the kind of conversation any child might have. Jess and Maybelle believe in God but dislike his violent side while Leslie doesn't believe but finds the Bible "interesting" and "beautiful". She judges religion purely as a story. The dialogue is naive (in the same way as naive painting) and wise and says an awful lot in a short time.
We are used to hearing about "wholesome" entertainment where wholesome is implied to be the absence of something: obscenity or crassness or perversion. Bridge to Terabithia's wholesomeness is positive. It isn't watered down. It has honesty. A soapy musical montage here or a lingering dreamy look there may grate but this is the kind of optimistic outlook on life that is neither silly nor empty-headed.
* * *
There is a tragedy that takes place in the film that knocks the stuffing out of you. Whilst Jess is visiting a museum with his music teacher - a trip he decided not to invite Leslie on - Leslie dies. She dies off-screen and we never see her again. There is suddenly a hole in the middle of the film where its heart was. Jess is bereft.
Films and television shows about young people mourning are few and far between. Grief is a problem for writers because it lingers. They see their storylines and their audiences as needing a quick changeover or a neat resolution. This grief is thus accelerated and expelled in a grand cathartic gesture because "it's time to say goodbye" and to "move on with your life". There is an element of this in Bridge to Terabithia (Jess floating a drawing of Leslie along the river in a toy boat) but the hole that she has left behind is never filled. It does linger with him and with us.
The film puts an accent on routine, especially the routine bus journeys to and from school. The film doesn't elide these moments in order to cut to Terabithia or to the classroom. Six times we see the three characters arrive home and get off the bus (there are eight scenes that take place on the bus). The seventh time Leslie isn't with them. That last time, because the established routine is broken, Leslie not being there hits us even harder.
In the most beautiful scene, that shows how Leslie opens Jess' heart and mind, she reads about her scuba diving. She comes alive as she tells the story and, as she does, Jess is able to imagine it all. She makes him see the fish of the ocean and, in a foretaste of her death (she drowns in the river that borders both worlds), bubbles rising from her mouth. I wondered to myself whether there is a better mix of the real and the fantastical than love.
* The good thing about what we are shown of Terabithia is that we see little of their fantasies (if that is what they are) and it is left up to our imagination too to fill in the blanks. There is a scene where Jess and Leslie are taken up in the claws of a couple of evil-looking birds which is especially effective because the birds are actually there. They are puppets.
**Orson Welles, in F For Fake, makes fun of our wish to read something meaningful into every little thing when he performs a magic trick with a key and some coins. He ends it saying that the key "is not symbolic of anything".