Because of Winn-Dixie (9/10)

by Tony Medley

I was touched before the movie started. The screening was at the venerable, beautiful Crest Theater in Westwood. As usual, I got there early and watched the arrivals. It was an uplifting treat to see all the children, most from around ages 3 to 8, enter the theater. They had big, anticipatory smiles on their faces and looked around the theater like it was their first time, running to their seats, going over to touch the beautiful murals of Los Angeles that adorn the walls. I was envious of their wide-eyed, innocent anticipation of a great treat. What a joy it would be to be able to generate such enthusiasm for a movie! Their excitement was electric.

This is not a sad movie, but there were teary eyes all around, inlcuding mine, because it’s so touching. India Opal Buloni (nine year old Annasophia Robb, making her film debut) has moved with her single father, Preacher (Jeff Daniels), to Naomi Florida to start a Baptist congregation. She’s lonely because her mother has abandoned the family and she doesn’t know why. She feels an emptiness and is hungry to fill it but none of the other children in the small town want to befriend her. On a trip to the market, an unruly dog (a Picardy shepherd) messes up the place and Opal comes to his rescue by claiming him as her own, naming him Winn-Dixie, after the name of the store. When she brings him home Preacher tells her she can’t keep him and the manager of their trailer park where they live orders them to get rid of the dog

That’s just the setup for a story that can’t help but touch your heartstrings. The dog is cute and loveable, but it’s Opal around whom the entire movie revolves. Expertly directed by Wayne Wang from a script by Joan Singleton, adapted from a popular, award-winning novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, young Opal brings the small town together with her ingenuous personality. Dog and girl are siblings under the skin as the dog is homeless and Opal is horribly lonely. It’s love at first sight.

Every character in the movie seems alone. Otis (musician Dave Matthews, making his first appearance in a major motion picture), who gives Opal a job so she can get a collar for Winn-Dixie, is a loner with a past; Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson) is a blind recluse that the other children think is a witch; Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), the librarian, seems all alone with her books. Opal brings them all together.

The only thing I didn’t like about this film is that the police are made to be the bad guys. There’s one policeman in the picture and he’s a real heavy, but there’s another segment, in a story told by Otis that pictures the police in a bad light. I deplore painting the police, who are supposed to be protecting us, as people to be loathed and feared to impressionable children.

Everything else about this movie is terrific. Matthews does a surprisingly good job, as does Tyson, which is not so surprising. Opal’s scenes with Gloria are as touching as her scenes with Winn-Dixie. The nine year old Robb (now ten) was picked after a nationwide search. With no film experience, she is a remarkable performer. She is in virtually every scene and carries the movie. Everyone else is supporting her.

It was a treat to see Eva Marie Saint again. Winner of the Academy Award in her first movie, “On The Waterfront” (1954), she was one of the memorable actresses of the ‘50s. I still remember her hanging off Mt. Rushmore as Cary Grant reaches down to try to save her in “North by Northwest” (1959). She still looks like the same gracious, loveable woman, 50 years later!

Unfortunately, this wonderful movie is probably doomed to suffer the same fate as last year’s “The Notebook,” which was released so early in the year it was forgotten when awards time came around. Even though this is a children’s movie I loved it.

February 14, 2005

The End