Dancer, Texas Pop. 81: Tim McCanlies Impressive Directing Debut

Evoking the spirit of Frank Capra’s Depression comedies and Thornton Wilder’s stage classic, Our Town, without the nostalgia or sentimentality that mark these movies, Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, Tim McCanlies’ impressive directorial feature debut, is an immensely charming small-town movie about the solemn vow of a quartet of high-schoolers to leave home and the effects of their fateful decision on the remaining 77 residents. With the right handling and sensitive marketing, TriStar, which acquired the film one week after it went into production, could score big among teenage and twentysomething viewers with a film that unmistakably exhibits a fresh regional voice.

Dancer, Texas is such a provincial and dormant place that it doesn’t even merit a place on the Rand McNally road map, which of course creates tremendous resentment and moral indignation among the villagers. Situated in the middle of Brewster County, right off Highway 91, it’s a town where the “shopping mall” is still a general store that sells vegies and fruit along with auto parts. Its tiny, five-room school boasts 41 students and a high-school graduating class of five–the largest in two decades!

Hence, when four of the town’s youngsters announce their resolution to move to L.A. upon graduation, practically every resident feels directly threatened by their decision. Mobilizing its creative resources, the whole town rallies to stop them from fulfilling a fantasy, which they have been dreaming, and endlessly talking about since the age of 11.

Set during a crucial weekend, supposedly the last one to be spent in Dancer, McCanlies’ sharply scripted comedy smoothly integrates serio and contemplative moments into its structure. In essence, it depicts rather hilariously the various encounters that the foursome have with different members in town, which have the effect of increasing their level of anxiety and insecurity concerning their unknown future.

Though very much an ensemble piece, McCanlies constructs a distinctive profile–and set of problems–for each of the four. Keller (Breckin Meyer), clearly scripter McCanlies’ alter ego, is the most anxious to get out of town, but he still doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do. The wealthy lothario of the group, handsome Terrell Lee Lusk (Peter Facinelli), is held back by demands of his parents (nicely played by Patricia Wettig and Michael O’Neill), who expect him to continue the family legacy in the oil business–until he realizes that the enterprise is not as profitable as he was led to believe.

Living with his alcoholic father in a shabby trailer, Squirrel (Ethan Embry) feels that his background justifies his departure–until he meets his dad’s new, friendly woman and faces some realities that force him to reexamine his vow. Rounding out the quartet is the voice of reason and most grounded member, John Hemphill (Eddie Mills), a natural born rancher who struggles with his own dilemmas.

Not since the eccentric comedies of Jonathan Demme (Citizens Band, aka Handle With Care, and Melvin and Howard), has there been a major American comedy that captures the unique texture of small-town life without pandering or condescending to its inhabitants.
A product of such milieu himself, director McCanlies understands that one secret for the success of these works is in taking a nonjudgmental approach, highlighting, rather than concealing, the idiosyncratic personality, dialect and humor of his dozen or so characters.

Composed of young, fresh actors (with some experience), the entire cast is uniformly strong and appealing, which puts the audience in the rather awkward but desirable position of rooting for each character, no matter what decision he’ll be making. Saga reaches its emotionally satisfying denouement when two of the foursome jump on a bus to L.A., with the whole town greeting them.

The tech credits of the picture, which was shot in 25 days around Fort Davis, Texas, are admirably modest, as befit the material, with a particularly strong contribution from Andrew Dintenfass, whose lensing evokes with unquestionable precision the unique texture of small-town life, which is becoming a rare sight in the new American cinema.