Thursday, February 24, 2005
Director Wayne Wang has made an erotic treatise on disconnection in the Internet age with films such as The Center of the World and the neighborhood slice-of-life dramas Smoke and Blue in the Face. In regular detours from such indie fare, Wang has also ventured into Hollywood product like Maid in Manhattan and The Joy Luck Club.
And now, in what could be the most schizophrenic film
career on record, comes a kiddie movie about an economically
depressed South healed by a lovable mutt. It’s The
Apostle crossed with Lassie.
BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE ( * * * )
Directed by Wayne Wang.
Starring Annasophia Robb, Jeff Daniels and Cicely Tyson.
(Rated PG, 116 mins.) At the Northridge Cinemas, Century Park Seven and Century Cinemas Del Monte Center.
Because of Winn-Dixie initially promises treacle galore when an adorable blond crumpet, 10-year-old Opal (Annasophia Robb), finds the mutt who will change her life as he sprints like a demon through the local Winn-Dixie. Orphan pup and motherless moppet begin a predictable cuteness campaign to beguile and charm.
Opal’s daddy, Preacher (Jeff Daniels), has been assigned to the armpit Florida town of Naomi to helm the Open Arms Baptist Church in an abandoned convenience store. Preacher and Opal’s glum course in the dead-end town was apparently set when Mrs. Preacher, tired of the minister’s life, abandoned her husband and daughter. Because of Winn-Dixie continues the kid movie tradition of plucky kid heroes left without one or both parents, but it adds a contemporary twist of family dysfunction.
Acting as a kind of social lubricant, the mutt—named Winn-Dixie—butts in doors and pushes his wet nose into the town’s business, facilitating Opal’s discovery of a treasure trove of eccentrics lurking in the cracks of Naomi. Gloria (Cicely Tyson) is the town “witch,” a recovered alcoholic with a bottle tree to represent each of her life’s mistakes. Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint) is the town librarian who seems quite pleased with her spinster’s solitude. And Otis (Dave Matthews) is a guitar-strumming ex-jailbird with a job at the pet store whose enchanting singing voice turns the store’s bunnies, piggies and birds into indie-rock fans.
Despite its PG rating, Because of Winn-Dixie caters to the elementary set with its cartoonish grown-ups—including a goofball deputy from a long line of hee-haw Southern lawmen—and its love of a good old-fashioned pratfall.
But Because of Winn-Dixie takes the kiddie film standard a step further to ponder how economic despair can break the spirit of a place. There has probably never been a film set in a more authentically unsightly small town, with its desolate downtown and boarded-up strip malls.
The town’s main industry had been the manufacture of a hard candy, the Litmus Lozenge, made by a battle-scarred Civil War veteran who found a candy that could distill melancholy and sweetness. Without the metaphorical candy to express the bittersweet complexities of life, Naomi’s citizens are adrift and disconnected from each other’s pain. A prolonged musing on death of the spirit, Because of Winn-Dixie finds in its dead Southern town a bevy of tragic characters.
Because of Winn-Dixie offers both some expectedly saccharine kid-film elements, but also some real surprises for the way it injects adult realities into its bittersweet confection.