If you love the idea of watching a flimsy-plot movie about a silly grinning dog and the havoc he wreaks on a poor unsuspecting town full of old people, Because of Winn Dixie is not the show for you. Far from the childish ridiculousness portrayed in its insipid previews, Winn Dixie (closer to a My Girl remake than a Benji knock off) is a funny and charming story about the importance of sharing the joys and burdens of life with those around us. Don’t take my word for it. Read on, paying careful attention to the number of times the dog actually comes up.
Naomi is the kind of town you don’t want to move to when you’re a kid. The old people outnumber the children twenty to one and the closest thing to entertainment is being harassed by the incompetent local sheriff. Naturally it’s just the kind of place where Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) would end up. Opal’s father, who she (and everyone else) refers to as the Preacher (Jeff Daniels), has been sent to Naomi to tend the few faithful folks who attend services in an old, cleared out convenience store. Nothing says “House of God” like the words “Pick-it-Quick” right under an illuminated wooden cross on the front of a building.
For reasons the Preacher has painfully refused to share with her, Opal’s mother left the pair alone when Opal was only three years old. Ever since then she and the Preacher have moved from town to town wherever his minister’s position has taken him. Now that it has landed them both in this lonely little town, Opal is desperate for a friend, something her father is too distracted to notice. The two share a loving but tense parental relationship that is only strained further when Opal rescues and brings home a very big, very friendly dog: Winn Dixie.
Unlike the cautious Opal, Winn Dixie has a gift for making friends and helps Opal to discover new acquaintances in the unlikeliest of places. Among them are Miss Franny, the town librarian (Eva Marie Saint), Otis, the awkward animal loving drifter/musician (Dave Matthews), and Gloria, an elderly woman who the children believe is a witch (Cicely Tyson). At first each new friendship is a joyful adventure for Opal. With time she begins to learn that she’s not the only one with a painful past. There are a lot of things eating away at the souls of the people of Naomi, and Opal hopes that doing something about it will help her deal with her own sorrow of never having known her mother.
Did you notice how the dog only came up twice in the last three paragraphs? To the movie’s credit, that’s pretty much how it works in the story too. As the title suggests, very little in the story is about Winn Dixie, but about what happens because of the good-natured animal. The dog is one of the funnier characters in the film, but is content to play mainly in the background as a catalyst for the story. The real magic of the story lies in the people of Naomi and the outstanding actors who bring them to life.
Jeff Daniels, whose association with the movie has been blindly hailed by some as his professional demise, does a wonderful job playing a distracted father who loves his daughter but is afraid to address with her the topic of her mother’s painful absence. While it won’t earn him a Golden Globe nom, his presence will be anything but the end of his career. AnnaSophia Robb (looking and sounding like Natalie Portman from her Leon days) makes a slightly awkward debut performance, but comes through beautifully in the film’s more touching and dramatic moments.
The remainder of this ensemble cast are the real gems. Veteran actors Eva Marie Saint (who will play Martha Kent in the upcoming Superman flick) and Cicely Tyson and film newcomers B.J. Hopper and Dave Matthews blend together to make one of the most understated, poignant group of troubled townsfolk since Chocolat. Matthews is particularly noteworthy, intermingling his musical talent into some of the most bittersweet moments of the film.
Winn Dixie is likely the most underestimated and mis-advertised movie of the year. While this is unmistakably a heartwarming movie, it artfully avoids many of the sweet film clichés. It’s far from the schmaltzy “Dennis the Menace” style wackiness that it has been portrayed as. Equally disappointing is the stupidity of having released it in February. While it has a certain appeal to audiences of all ages (my full house showing had a range from five to eighty-five year olds and every single one of us at chuckling and wiping a tear) it will definitely be a bigger hit with the younger set, making it the ideal candidate for a summer release, not a February schlep-off.