February 18, 2005,
Winn-Dixie’s a Winner
Charm and insight from Dave Matthews and his new band.
A cute little girl with no mommy, a shaggy dog with no home, a preacher-daddy, and a sleepy southern town peopled with adorable eccentrics who could ask for anything more?
Those who are moved to beg for much, much less will want to steer clear of Because of Winn-Dixie, a film based on the beloved children's novel by the same title, authored by Newberry Award winner Kate DiCamillo. Yet the film has surprising charm, and yields some unexpected insights. While the prime audience will always be kids and their tag-along grownups (an audience that will find this film more than satisfying), the occasional grumpy outsider who wanders in will also find plenty to enjoy.
Winn-Dixie, in this case, is not the grocery chain, but a rambunctious mutt that we meet rampaging through the store, leading employees on a merry chase and knocking the manager down for some slobbery kisses. It sounds dangerously trite, but the staging is just far enough over the top that it redeems itself sincere, self-aware slapstick, not just a lame escapade. Director Wayne Wang repeatedly makes good choices, adding freshness to characters and situations that could easily be too familiar.
Ten-year-old Opal (newcomer Annasophia Robb) saves the dog from being carted to the pound by claiming that he belongs to her. She spontaneously names him for the store, and leads him back to the mobile home she shares with her daddy, whom she invariably calls "the preacher" (Jeff Daniels). They have just moved to the tiny town of Naomi where he will pastor the Open Arms Baptist Church, located in an empty convenience store. (Another neat moment is when we see worshippers arrive carrying food, for example a layer cake, into the quickee mart. We don't know yet that it's been turned into a church.) Daniels brings originality to his role as the conscientious but withdrawn and melancholy daddy. His wife left them when Opal was three, under circumstances he's never explained. Opal is lonely in the new town and has no friends, and Winn-Dixie becomes her constant companion.
Because of Winn-Dixie, Opal meets characters at the library, the pet shop, and a house deep in the tangled woods. Her persistence brings them out of their seclusion and new friendships are forged. In the end, she learns more about her mother, and enters a new, more open relationship with her father.
You may feel like you've heard this story a hundred times before, but for children hearing it for the first time, Because of Winn-Dixie is a good place to start. A couple of things set it apart from the crowd. Director Wang deserves some of the credit: He has an excellent cast and brings the best out of them, so that Jeff Daniels as the preacher, Eva Marie Saint as the librarian, and Cicely Tyson as the supposed "witch" in the woods, bring a natural, authentic touch to material that could have been saccharine. (Well, Tyson is a little screechy.)
The best surprise, however, is Dave Matthews as Otis, the young man who runs the pet shop. Yes, this is Dave Matthews the musician, leader of the mega-selling Dave Matthews Band. Who knew he could act? But he conveys a character who is somewhat absent-minded, somewhat simple-minded, broody, tender, given to murmuring and glancing away; he's easily the most interesting person in the film. The scene, late in the film, when he unfolds his story to Opal was the only moment that brought tears to my grumpy outsider's eyes. "I'm not a bad man," he says, strumming his guitar, "but I'm not a lucky man," and his voice lifts into song on the last words, in a tone of hurt and wonder. Well, it's terrific.
Annasophia Robb as Opal, however, is a bit over her depth, and it was a poor choice to make her up so thoroughly; too much mascara and eye shadow, too much tweezing of the brows, for a little southern girl. She and the dog appear in virtually every scene, unfortunately for the top-class adult actors, who no doubt remember the rule about never appearing in a show that includes a child or an animal, let alone both. Yet the whole comes pleasingly together, and in the last 45 minutes or so (earlier would have been better) it deepens with reflections on the way shared pain and joy can bring people together. Because of Winn-Dixie is an excellent addition to the canon of stories for young people about loss, loneliness, and community, and packs lessons worth remembering for a lifetime.
Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR's Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.