Size doesn't count

Welcome to Dancer, Texas, a fine place to be

Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 is a nice little movie.
That probably sounds like an insult, but it's not meant to be. It's a genuine sentiment, one not often given--or even fished for--with movies these days, where if it can't be bigger, it had best be weirder than anything that's come before. But Dancer is determinedly nice and small, purposefully hometown, and all the more winsome because of it. While its plot won't set the world afire with ingeniousness or complexity, Dancer might wake up a few burgs with its warm love story about growing up in a small Texas town.

From the opening scene, the film telegraphs its intention in gentle taps: be familiar so as not to be threatening, yet remain offbeat enough to keep it interesting. Four teens sit in lawn chairs across a deserted country highway in a panoramic shot that captures the beauty and solitude of far Southwest Texas. In one of the film's only gimmicks, a brief dose of calculated exposition that plays straight out of "Screenwriting 101" and belies the gentle amble of the rest of the movie, Keller (Brecklin Meyer, most recognizable as the stoner Travis in Clueless), reads aloud from a letter he's writing to a Mr. Rand McNally. See, Dancer, Texas, is not even on the map, but it should be because it has good people, and it's isolation makes it a perfect spot for the weary traveler, sort of like this movie. But naturally, it's "one hell of a boring place to grow up in," as one of the characters quickly states. So the population is getting ready to dive from 81 to 77 because this weekend Dancer's high school will have its biggest graduating class in 20 years, five people, and the four guys made a pact when they were 11 to head to Los Angeles together.

As this information is being delved out, someone interrupts with the word "car." The camera cuts away to the shimmering speck of an automobile in the distance. The conversation continues with brief introductions of the players. Besides Keller, the pack leader and the one with the biggest case of wanderlust, there's Terrell Lee (Peter Facinelli), the Casanova of the bunch since he's been dating not just one but two girls in a school with so few to begin with. And John (Eddie Mills) must be a cowboy, because he has a cowboy hat and boots. Then there's Squirrel (the movie-stealing Ethan Embry of Vegas Vacation, and That Thing You Do!). As if the name isn't a big enough clue, he must be the goofy nebbish because he's wearing scuba flippers. But enough for the introductions--it's time for the boys to get to graduation. Oh, yeah, and there's that car. The guys stand, grab their chairs and knickknacks, bumble a few things, fuss at each other, and finally drag off the road just as the car flies past. It's this sort of obvious but unflinching dry humor and casual pacing, seasoned with realistic dialogue, small-town nuances, and the occasional quirky punch that lifts Dancer just as it is on the verge of becoming sun-dried roadkill.

Sure, in this coming-of-age story there are plenty of tried-and-true mitigating factors that affect whether all our boys will escape hick life. Terrell Lee's mother (played a little too wicked-witchy cold by thirtysomething's Patricia Wettig) demands that he join the family oil business. On the other hand, John, not just a kid with a hat but a true cowboy, might be willing to give up his friends and their pact in order to stay and work on his family's ranch, if only his father and he could communicate. Turns out Squirrel might be such a goof because he lives in a filthy trailer with his father, the alcoholic, and while that should be reason enough to leave, it may be an excuse to stay. Then there's Keller, who though he's been researching L.A. and forming a financial plan for six years, may be too afraid to leave Dancer, especially once he realizes what a wonderful place it really is.

But first-time director Tim McCanlies, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter with Disney and a native Texan, knows how to color the conventions. He never stoops completely to stereotypes or the sugary sentiment of Afterschool Specials. Instead, he uses just enough of what's expected to roll out extra layers for a delightful added new depth, sans the prototypical alt-rock soundtrack and throwaway vulgarity found in most coming-of-age stories. The scenes stretch out and kick their boots off to get comfy, sometimes even coming to a complete standstill, much like the speech of the many non-professional West Texas locals cast for bit parts. But it works. McCanlies is spinning an old-fashioned yarn of boys growing up and choosing the path that's right for them, and it doesn't matter if you know how it turns out: The telling of the tale is the fun. And Dancer is fun and hospitable in a Fandango-without-the-thrills sort of way. Whereas a film such as The Last Picture Show pays homage to small-town living as it sounds its death knoll, Dancer celebrates that small towns are alive and well, and doing quite nicely, thank you.

Dancer, Texas Pop. 81.
Written and directed by Tim McCanlies. Starring Breckin Meyer, Peter Facinelli, Eddie Mills, Ethan Embry, Ashley Johnson, and Patricia Wettig. Opens Friday.

 
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