What 'Practical Magic' taught me about life, love and the importance of sisterhood
Practical Magic came out in 1998, when I was 9 years old. And it was a fixture of my childhood and high school years.
It feels like every fall, I would pop the movie into my VCR and get absorbed into a world of magic.
The film is set in New England, and most of the action takes place in a gorgeous old house on a cliffside. Sunlight trickles through glass windowpanes into the house, where the occupants grow herbs for their spells and light candles by blowing on them.
Those occupants are witches, of course: two sisters named Sally, played by Sandra Bullock, and Gillian, played by Nicole Kidman, as well as their aunts, played by Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest.
I watched them with dreamy, wide eyes. Sandra Bullock in her loose-fitting jeans, a sweater, and white sneakers always looked casually, effortlessly cool. Nicole Kidman was striking with her impossibly long, bright red hair and chic black-on-black outfits.
And then you had the aunts, who were never afraid to be themselves — and showed that in their fashion choices. In one scene, Stockard Channing walks around town, shielding herself from the sun with a red parasol.
These women were strong. They were powerful. And they were playful. They ate chocolate cake for breakfast. They frolicked naked under the full moon. They blended up margaritas at midnight and danced around the kitchen in their pajamas to "Coconut" by Harry Nilsson. (Side note: the Practical Magic soundtrack is a treasure. Stevie Nicks. Joni Mitchell. Faith Hill's "This Kiss.")
I think, as a kid, that this was the extent of it. I loved how these characters made me feel.
It's funny, though, how a movie you've gone back to over and over since childhood can mean different things to you over time.
Learning a valuable lesson
As I got into middle school and high school, I started to pick up on some of the movie's other themes.
I remember watching it one October with a friend my sophomore year of high school. I'm pretty sure we were watching a VHS, and the resolution was grainy.
And then the scene came on. After a build-up of significant sexual tension, two characters share a passionate kiss. Sitting on my friend's bedroom floor, I felt butterflies in my stomach. I wanted to be kissed like that.
I related a lot to Gillian, Nicole Kidman's character.
At the beginning of the film, a desperate woman comes to the aunts and asks them to perform a love spell. Sitting in the kitchen, she throws down a wad of cash and says: "I want him to want me so much that he can't stand it." Then she takes a needle and stabs a bird — part of the spell.
Sally and Gillian are young girls at this point, and they're sitting on the steps watching this unfold.
"I hope I never fall in love," Sally says.
"I can't wait to fall in love," Gillian says.
Sally is so determined to never fall in love that she casts a spell. She conjures up an image of a man who doesn't exist. He can ride a pony backwards. He can flip pancakes in the air. He'll be marvelously kind. His favorite shape will be a star, and he'll have one green eye, and one blue. Her logic is that if this man doesn't exist, she'll never fall in love, and she'll never have a broken heart.
And as she grows up, Sally stays afraid of romantic love. Afraid of feeling so deeply and then getting hurt. And for good reason.
Meanwhile, Gillian throws herself into every romantic connection she can find. It's like an addiction.
Later, one of Gillian's relationships turns abusive. In a scene at the house, she describes love to her niece, Sally's daughter.
"Do you ever put your arms out and spin and spin and spin really, really fast? Well that's what love is like," she says. "It makes your heart race. It turns the world upside down. But if you're not careful, if you don't keep your eyes on something still, you can lose your balance. You can't see what's happening to the people around you. You can't see that you're about to fall."
This movie introduced me to the idea that love could be dangerous. That you should learn to protect yourself.
But that's not the only lesson I learned.
A love worth taking a chance on
You remember the spell Sally cast? Well, I guess we're doing spoilers here — it turns out that he does exist. And he's her happy ending.
Watching Practical Magic now — and I still do watch it every October — it occurs to me that, yes, that is a Hollywood twist. You can't dream up a list of specific characteristics and go out in search of that person. And love isn't just about happy endings. It's an ongoing choice to treat someone else with care and respect.
But what I've learned is that real love is even more beautiful. Because when you do grow to love someone, all their idiosyncrasies and their details become so sacred to you, so imprinted on your heart, that it's almost like you'd dreamed them into existence.
That's worth taking a chance on.
The magic of friendship
The other theme in Practical Magic that's become more meaningful to me over time: friendship. Specifically, sisterhood.
There's an unbreakable bond between Sally and Gillian. When Sally's husband dies and she's deeply depressed and can't get out of bed, Gillian crawls under the covers with her and they lay there together and talk for what seems like hours.
Her presence allows Sally the space to fully open up. "I was really, really happy," she says, choking back tears.
It can be heartbreaking to say out loud how much a loss hurts. But it's one of the first steps in healing, and it often comes only after someone has done you the kindness of sitting with you in your grief.
I rewatched Practical Magic last week with one of my best friends. She came over and we laid under a blanket on my couch, with a candle lit.
This friend is like a sister to me. She's been a steady presence in my life: in times of joy, but also in moments of grief, like when romantic love has fallen apart.
If the witches taught me anything, it's that life isn't so scary when you have the love of a sister.
Also to always throw spilt salt over your left shoulder. And fall in love whenever you can.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.