“The film that taught a thousand kids about death”

It’s 10 years this weekend since Bridge to Terabithia hit cinemas here in the UK and Ireland, the same weekend as Spider-Man 3. I distinctly recall meeting some kids I knew outside the cinema, and them expressing shock that I was — in fact — seeing a film other than Sam Raimi’s comic-book threequel (which I have since seen a dozen times, and enjoy tremendously). But Bridge to Terabithia I had to see: its trailer showcased an enchanting fantasy featuring two kids and an incredible world of magical creatures. Narnia, much? But Bridge, as American readers of the source novel knew, was not the film this trailer suggested. It isn’t technically a fantasy at all: nothing fantastical actually occurs within the story, and the full extent of the CGI used was on display in the marketing. Rather, this is a relatively small-scale drama; a soft meditation on the imagination and on tragic loss. Bridge to Terabithia is essentially Manchester by the Sea for 10-year olds.

Josh Hutcherson gives a game performance as Jess, brother of four sisters in a Virginian family that — it’s immediately clear — aren’t particularly well-off. The film does a superb job of establishing the damp isolation of the setting, as Jesse is picked on in school (one boy whispers “You’re dead meat” at least 20 times throughout the film). Then, a bohemian writer couple move in next door, and Jess soon befriends their manic-pixie-dreamgirl daughter Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb). Leslie, to the outrage of her classmates, does not own a television, and writes brilliant short stories, so — obviously — nobody will be her friend. Jess and Leslie find a rope-swing in the forest, and together imagine a spectacular kingdom of fairies and trolls on the other side. But when the film hits its now-infamous twist, even the title becomes darkly ironic: there is no Bridge leading to Terabithia. If only there was, maybe Leslie wouldn’t died.

So Leslie dies an hour into the film. It’s arguably the most shocking, awful death in a children’s film since My Girl, and 9-year old me did not see it coming. Distraught, I found myself more moved by Bridge than any new film I’d seen for quite some time. The third act holds up extremely well, and it remains surreally terrible that Leslie’s death is the result of Jess abandoning her to basically go on a date with his music teacher (Zooey Deschanel). But his mourning is handled realistically but not melodramatically, and the film’s conclusion is profoundly cathartic. Most of the CGI budget is spent on the final minute, as Jess realises his younger sister will make a sufficient replacement for Leslie and introduces her to the Terabithian lore. It’s a corny ending to a film that generally avoids being so, but — clichéd as much of this story is — that’s totally invalidated by the uniqueness of the central tragedy. Bridge to Terabithia: the film that taught a thousand kids about death. It still teaches me today.