You need to watch the most bewitching cult classic on HBO Max before it leaves next week
“We Owens sisters have always caused a stir.”
The ‘90s were imperfect in many aspects of media and storytelling, but the decade's films had an affinity for stories about the bonds that tether women together. Films like Fried Green Tomatoes, Now and Then, and A Little Princess all explore themes of femininity, familial legacy, bonds made under hardship, and the ties to home.
The saccharine coat of these titles means they don’t possess the same cult following of many other films released in that decade. However, they indicate a time when “women’s stories” were flourishing and studios were interested in relationships that went beyond the cliched romances between men and women.
Practical Magic, starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, is one such example. Released in 1998 and directed by Griffin Dunne, the film grew in popularity, with many women championing it as a cult classic over the years. Practical Magic is quintessential 90s, both due to its rising stars and its filmmaking style. There’s no better time than now to watch or revisit this fantasy romantic-comedy before it leaves HBO Max on November 30.
Based on the book by author Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic is wonderful escapism. Whimsy and melancholy permeate the movie, aided by the fairytale narration that bookends the story. The story follows the Owens sisters, Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman), who are witches that live with a family curse.
In a flashback, we learn that the first witch in the Owens ancestry placed a curse on herself when her lover abandoned her after becoming pregnant, and her town banished her for using magic. Initially, the spell was to stop her from ever falling in love. However, through time and loneliness, it transformed itself into what generations of Owens sisters believe to be a modern curse where any man they fall in love with will ultimately meet his demise. After Sally loses her husband in a freak accident and is forced to return to her childhood home with her aunts, she vows to no longer use magic.
Sally and Gillian live in a small town, where their house resides at the edge of a cliff, leaning over the ocean so that it almost blends with its backdrop. The film makes the home a real character — something many modern films forget to do. Each picturesque room is lived in and so alive that it could be springing forward at you like a pop-up book. The costumes and styling also enhance the film’s natural beauty, richly depicting its characters stuck in a devastating loop.
In Practical Magic, the characters’ use of their gifts is an act of liberation, a common theme tied to movies centered on witches. Often a character using their magic instead of repressing it is a sign of them reclaiming their agency and reinforcing their autonomy. It’s a display of their considerable power that so many fear. From modern films such as The Witch to The Love Witch, we’ve seen these female characters find either retribution, community, or a sense of worth through their abilities.
Practical Magic can be heavy-handed, but its greatest strength is the bond between Sally and Gillian. Their bond hinges on the idea of strength in the power of numbers, especially in a group of women looking to protect their own. The film demonstrates this beautifully through Sally’s protective nature over Gillian. We learn about Gillian’s abusive relationship and the incredible will Sally exudes by saving her sister — not from some evil force or otherworldly monster, but from the threat of a relationship that hurts her and tries to smother her talents and charms.
Director Griffin Dunne hasn’t had many other hits throughout the years, making Practical Magic feel like an anomaly. It’s the artistry and the talent that surrounds Dunne that gives the film such warmth, vision, and spirit. Bolstered by charismatic performances from Bullock and Kidman, the movie may not be remembered as their very best, but it’s the perfect example of a movie that effectively captured its era.
More than 20 years later, Practical Magic’s story of a sisterhood still holds relevance. Today’s movies place greater emphasis on the relationships between women, although they’re still far and few in-between. In the meantime, we can relish the emotional resonance — and timely autumnal atmosphere — of this ‘90s cult favorite.
Practical Magic is streaming on HBO Max until November 30, 2021.