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02/23/07 12:00AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) This is the weekend when the film industry hands out the Oscars for outstanding achivements in motion pictures. And commentator Jay Craven is getting into the spirit by celebrating a film that has just been released.

(CRAVEN) As we approach this Sunday's Academy Award ceremonies, I find myself thinking about a smart and sensitive new film, "The Bridge to Terabithia," which recently opened across the country in the number two box office position-quite an achievement for a picture that so respects its audience of kids and families.

The film is based on Vermont writer Katherine Paterson's Newbery award-winning book-and it breaks ground for its frank and unsentimental depiction of loss and its unpretentious celebration of imagination as a transcending life force.

Middle school loner, Jess, is outnumbered by four sisters but he likes to paint and he's the school's top runner until an irresistible and energetic new girl, Leslie, aces him out in an after-school race. Both kids are a bit off-center and they face the usual array of hallway horrors in the form of bullies. We've seen this before, but rather than getting mired in the grip of all that conflict, the film shifts gears to explore how Jess and Leslie put aside competitive rituals to find common ground. In their love of the outdoors and the magic kingdom they conjure among the streams and trees, these kids open their minds and hearts to each other.

The bond that these youngsters develop feels almost subversive given the gender segregation and social entrenchment that prevails for so many school-aged boys and girls, stuck in their separate cocoons of media and product inspired subculture. Until they get to high school when it's too late to reclaim the missed fun that younger boys and girls can enjoy together.

"The Bridge to Terabithia" includes a number of refreshing characterizations. It shows Leslie's parents in a joyful and passionate if somewhat quirky marriage. What a change from the sanitized cookie-cutter stereotypes that populate so many family films.

And the picture features Zooey Deschanel as a lively and nurturing music teacher who gets kids to let it all hang out through singing. This is a welcomed characterization, given mounting pressures to cut still more school art and music programs, even in Vermont.

Indeed, I'm reminded of a terrific project that the Vermont Historical Society wanted to develop, several years ago, where Katherine Paterson, songwriter Jon Gailmor, and I would to go into a dozen schools to help kids turn their amazing community oral histories into stories, songs, and plays. Unfortunately, the project's modest fundraising needs never materialized.

But "The Bridge to Terabithia" celebrates the arts at every turn. Leslie's a poet, Jess paints, Jess' parents are writers. There are difficult relationships, too, at school and in Jess's thorny interactions with an unyielding father. This fuels some of the film's conflict and the dad could be a bit more developed. And maybe the film's special effects draw a bit too much attention to themselves.

But these are small quibbles given "The Bridge to Terabitha's" success in affirming a generous vision of young people looking beyond what is visible, fueled by the unbounded power of friendship and imagination.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.

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