(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
In a marketplace dominated by flashy, hyperactive, bathroom humor-centric extravaganzas like Shrek 2 and Shark Tale, it’s refreshing to find, in Wayne Wang’s Because of Winn Dixie, a children’s film that embraces storytelling modesty and a balanced view of the world as both depressing and joyous. Told with a relaxed storybook melodiousness that agrees with its tranquil backwater Florida setting, the film – based on the acclaimed children’s book by Kate DiCamillo – is realistic without being morose, hopeful without being saccharine. Portraying life as a series of uplifting highs and sometimes painful lows, it’s sincere children’s entertainment that respects its audience’s intelligence, and one of the surprise highlights of this still-young film year.
Having recently moved to rural Naomi, Florida with her withdrawn preacher father (Jeff Daniels), lonely 10-year-old Opal (impressive newcomer AnnaSophia Robb) – whose mother walked out on the family years earlier for mysterious reasons – is desperate for a friend. She finds a loyal companion in the Winn Dixie supermarket when she rescues a shaggy dog (who goes by the grocery store’s name) from certain incarceration at the pound and takes him home to live with her none-too-pleased father. Winn Dixie is a rascal who actually smiles at everyone he meets, and as his relationship grows with Opal, so the cheery girl learns to come out of her shell and attract a group of new, similarly lonesome friends, including an unmarried librarian (Eva Marie Saint), a reticent, guitar-strumming ex-con (Dave Matthews) who gives Opal a job at his pet store, and a blind recovering alcoholic (Cicely Tyson) whose seclusion has earned her a reputation among the other kids as a witch.
One might naturally expect a surplus of treacle or irony from such a set-up, yet Wang (working from Joan Singleton’s screenplay) makes sure his story’s optimism is earned through frank confrontation of life’s less-than-pleasant truths. As Opal unites the town’s alienated citizens by fostering a spirit of togetherness, she also learns to confront (and help her despondent father come to grips with) her mother’s alcohol-fueled abandonment, and it’s heartwarming to find that Because of Winn Dixie refuses to shy away from the simple, unavoidable fact that life (like the tragedy-imbued candies that were once produced in town) is a mixture of the sweet and the sad. To be sure, the laid-back film is a tad on the long-winded side, and a couple of scenes involving Harland Williams’ cop are unnecessary detours into cartoonish zaniness. Yet by promoting the idea that unhappiness is a feeling shared by everyone (rather than an emotion that makes us unique), this delightful film confronts the emotionally bumpy terrain of childhood (and adulthood) with unassuming maturity.