Winn-Dixie is a Winner!
In this lovely new film, a young girl finds offbeat companionship that points her toward a new meaning of family.by Susan Avery
As a reporter, I go to screening after screening of today's hottest kid flicks. And, frankly, I usually feel that none of these multi-million-dollar productions compare to the great children's films of yesteryear. That is, until now.
There I was, in the New York screening room of Twentieth Century Fox, surrounded by movie critics, wiping tears off my notebook as I watched Because of Winn-Dixie. I had not read the highly regarded bestseller by Kate DiCamillo, nor did I understand the title, having never grocery-shopped in the South. Still, almost immediately after the film opened with 10-year-old Opal alone in a supermarket, I found myself fully invested in her well-being.
Granted, this is not an adoption film in the classic sense. But DiCamillo (who co-wrote the screenplay) writes vividly about a child coming to understand a parent leaving by choice, never to return. We never see Opal's mother. But we see her turtle of a father, a preacher who deals with the loss of his wife by avoiding the subject—as well as his daughter.
It's summertime in a small Florida suburb, and Opal, a newcomer to the town, is lonely. She soon makes her first friend, though—a wiry-haired, howling canine with a natural smile—and names him Winn-Dixie, for the supermarket in which she found him. With the help of her trusty dog, Opal slowly builds a motley set of confidantes, including an eccentric librarian, the town drunk, a shadowy ex-con, and four local children, who are themselves in desperate need of attention. It's that inborn need to make connections, which each character thought he had lost long ago, that draws these isolated souls together.
“This story is about forming families,” said DiCamillo in an interview given from her home in Minneapolis. “It's not about the family you're given, it's about the one you make, as Opal does.” The author said she never considered having Opal's mother return. “There aren't many movies that deal with the emotional lives of kids or that treat their emotional concerns seriously,” she said. “But I think this one does.”
Opening February 18, Because of Winn-Dixie highlights the pull we all feel to find our place in this world. If parents don't offer enough earnest mindfulness, children will seek it elsewhere. In an obvious departure from almost every other family movie out there, there is no unrealistic turn of events to bring the story to a pat conclusion. Nobody, not even Winn-Dixie, saves the day. The payoff comes quietly, with a warm group hug and Opal's moment when she lets go of the dream that her mother will return. “My heart doesn't feel empty anymore,” she says. “It's full all the way up. I'll still think about you, I promise. But probably not as much as I did this summer.”
Susan Avery is an adoptive mother, the kids editor at New York magazine, and a regular freelancer for The New York Times.
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