The Unflinching Warmth of ‘Practical Magic’

“I love you.”

“I love you too, Gilly-bean.”

Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman), with all of her chaotic confidence, and Sally Owens (Sandra Bullock), with her acute tenderness, are somehow both very much like me and both deeply unlike me. There are bits and pieces of both that I see in myself, and pieces I reach towards. Gillian and I both carry tiger’s eye as a warden of good luck and safety, although mine is a palm stone, not a necklace; I often appear more sure of myself than I actually am just as she does. I have some of Sally’s sadness, the kind that floats around without ever really going away and I both fear and crave love with the same amount of ferocity.

Sally and Gillian’s affection for each other is deep and enviable, the kind of whole love that most people long for their entire lives. I adore their dynamic; how sweet, earth-defying, playful and caring they are together. Gillian swears that they will die on the same day, so she slashes into both their palms with her pocket knife, and, pressing their hands together, they chant, “My blood. Your blood. Our blood.” A spell and a promise to never lose each other. They kill and practice dark, untouchable magic to protect each other, regardless of the consequences. Their sisterhood and their family is invincible, and that’s part of what allows the film to be so easy and comfortable. Sally’s daughters Antonia (Alexandra Artrip) and Kylie (Evan Rachel Wood) are sweet reflections of her as they dance around the town dreaming up charms. Their spinster aunts Jet (Dianne Wiest) and Frances (Stockard Channing) are constants, spouting age-old wisdoms, passing down spells, and tethering their girls to the Owens’ matrilineal line. 

The witchcraft in Practical Magic is light, spiritual and unabashedly feminine; it thrums through the Owens sisters just as constantly as blood slides through their veins. Their magic is all intuition and herbalism and a dash of telekinesis. It’s telepathy between all of the sisters, lighting candles with a soft breath, and making wishes on leaves and rose petals. It’s the breeze coming in over the ocean and Gillian and Sally breaking curses and banishing evil. It’s about life and revival and the curative power of sisterhood.

Somehow, this film has become a natural point of healing and recovery for me. I tend to drift towards it every time I get particularly trapped within my own mind and mental illness. Every time I go through flare-ups of my depression and unintentionally shut myself down; I mostly stay in my room, or at least at home, and get all empty. I’m not entirely certain why I so often reach for this film during those moments of melancholy. Maybe it’s Gillian singing Joni Mitchell as she drives through indigo desert nights or young Gillian and Sally crouched on the table wearing angel wings as they practice their spells. Or Jet and Frances making brownies for breakfast and midnight margaritas. Maybe it’s Gillian telling Sally that she won’t forgive herself if she doesn’t “get up and get dressed”. Or it’s just two sisters saving each other over and over. Something about it mends my soul and reminds me of all the good that there is despite the bad. The sisters heal simultaneously – though from different injuries – and reach for warmth and strength within the other. They stumble and sob and occasionally make messes of themselves and their lives, but they dutifully continue on their restorative path. 

“Don’t be sad Aunt Gillian, I won’t let you fall down,” Kylie promises after her sad and implicitly self-deprecating speech about the consequences of loving too much. It’s a gentle line, swathed in the innocence of Kylie’s childhood, but powerful and honest all the same. Sally and Gillian take turns rescuing the other right before they crumble – picking them up, tucking their hair behind their ears and reassuring them that they won’t let them falter and wither away. Aunt Jet and Aunt Frances do the same for all of their little girls, swooping in at just the right time with some spell, herb or another to wash the heartbreak away. They’ll protect, heal, and love each other as long as the moon still basks in the sky. 

Practical Magic fills me with such love and elation. It seals my wounds closed and leads me to a tender catharsis. Fluffy and cliched though it may be, Practical Magic teaches us how we may find warmth and love in all the places we can as long as we have Stevie Nicks playing in the background. “There are some things though I know for certain,” Sally tells us. “Always throw spilt salt over your left shoulder, keep rosemary by your garden gate, plant lavender for luck and fall in love whenever you can.” 

 

by Jenna Kalishman

Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and undergrad film studies student who currently lives in Colorado. She loves comics, films about witches, Kacey Musgraves, and getting lost in the mountains. Her favourite films include Annihilation, anything Star Wars, and Carol. You can find her tweeting about Cersei Lannister and Big Little Lies at @jenkalish and her letterboxd is @chastainly 

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