© 2005 Ray Wong
Stars: Annasophia Robb, Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Dave Matthews, Eva Marie Saint, Courtney Jines, Nick Price, Luke Benward, Elle Fanning, B.J. Hopper, Harland Williams
Director: Wayne Wang
Writer: Joan Singleton (based on novel by Kate DiCamillo)
MPAA Rating: PG for themes and mild language
Running time: 104 minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 6
Production – 7
Total Score – 6.7 of 10
I admit that the poster of BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE almost stopped me from seeing this story of a preacher’s daughter finding her way around a small southern town. Its Disney movie-of-the-week layout, complete with a cute, smiling pooch in the forefront, aims directly at kids and their obliging parents. But I should also admit that, to my surprise, I enjoyed it.
Opal Buloni (Robb) is a 10-year-old girl who’s been drifting from town to town with her preacher father (Daniels). When she was very young, her mother left her husband and daughter without leaving anything behind. As Opal and her father settle in Naomi, Florida, she laments the loss of her friends. She feels out of place and lonely in a run-down, seemingly poor town where the church resides in a convenient store. Her father is detached and sad, as are the townsfolk, including the prissy Amanda (Jines), the infantile Sweetie Pie (Fanning), and the Dewberry “baldheaded babies” brothers (Price and Benward) who antagonize Opal everywhere she goes (boys will be boys).
One day, while shopping at a local Winn-Dixie supermarket, Opal encounters a dirty mutt. To save the dog from being sent to the pound, Opal claims her and calls her, of all things, Winn-Dixie. Opal begs her father to keep the dog. The Preacher reluctantly obliges, but not without being threatened by his landlord Mr. Alfred (Hopper). Soon, Opal finds out Winn-Dixie has an uncanny ability to make friends with just about anyone. And because of her, Opal starts to make friends with an eclectic group of townsfolk such as the old-maid librarian Ms. Franny (Saint), the reclusive Gloria (Tyson), and the withdrawn drifter Otis (Matthews). As Opal finds out more about these new friends of hers, she also discovers more about herself and her history, and a lesson or two about love, sorrow, and life.
As the young protagonist, Robb (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) does seem a little inexperienced in her role. At times she depends too much on superficial facial expressions to indicate her emotions. That aside, she exudes a genuine innocence, and a charming quality that is fresh and delightful. The film rests heavily on her shoulders and she does a respectable job. Good thing, too, that she’s surrounded by veteran actors such as Daniels (THE HOURS), who is adequately melancholy and detached, and at times embarrassing, as the Preacher. Or Tyson (DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN) as the woman who can “see with her heart.” Or Saint (DON’T COME KNOCKING) as the kind and worldly Ms. Franning.
Or songwriter-singer Matthews (WHERE THE RED FERNS GROWS) of the Dave Matthews Band fame, whose sophomore performance as reticent Otis would likely garner him kudos. Likewise, Hopper (MALPRACTICE) is effective as the grumpy old man landlord, and Williams (LUCKY 13) is funny as the doofus police officer. As for the young players – Jines, Price, Benward, and Fanning – they all do well in their respective roles.
Director Wang (THE JOY LUCK CLUB) gives us a leisurely-paced folktale of a film, here. His cameras mostly focus on the characters, and how they interact with each other. At times the film does borderline on fantasy and sentimentality, like how when Otis sings, animals calm down and listen. Okay, just a tad unbelievable (what is he, Snow White?) Granted, this is a family movie so I would tolerate lapses like that. Interesting to note, though, is the eclectic nature of Wang’s career – from the sentimental JOY LUCK CLUB to the adult THE CENTER OF THE WORLD to the pure sap MAID IN MANHATTAN. And now a southern comfort kid’s story. One has to wonder, if Wang is continuously reinventing himself, or if he hasn’t found his own style and voice yet?
First-time screenwriter Singleton has written a script that closely follows the novel by DiCamillo. It’s basically a small, quiet coming-of-age story in the veins of STAND BY ME and MY DOG SKIP. The story depends on the eclectic group of characters and their relationships with the girl and her dog. There is no grand plot, and no apparent villains either (except the more-comical-than-sinister policeman). In a way, it’s kind of fresh and fun to see a film without the clichéd hero vs. villain formula. Even so, the film is unmistakably family- and kid-oriented, even with the more mature themes such as alcoholism. The themes are often simple, straightforward and sweet, if at times too on the nose. As an adult, I don’t find the film insufferably parent-unfriendly. And because of that (and the winsome Winn-Dixie), I believe it’s a good thing.