This story of a girl, a dog, and the lessons they teach a small southern town is appealing but a bit heavy-handed, starting right at the beginning. It leads off with the sugary cliche trifecta: voice-over narration telling us how much has changed since the days we are about to hear the story of, a syrupy sentimental song, and a child with big, thoughtful, eyes telling God she wants a friend and that someday she’d like to see her mother again.
It also has corne pone character names like “Sweetie Pie” and “Dunlap Dewberry” and an uncertain performance by Annasophia Robb in the lead as Opal. But strong appearances by top talent in the adult roles and graceful evocation of a gently rural community by director Wayne Wang keep it for the most part more sweet than sugary.
Opal and her father have just moved to Naomi, Florida where he is the minister for a church so tiny that the congregants assemble on folding chairs set up in a convenience store. “Nothing wrong with making church more convenient,” good-naturedly says the Preacher (Jeff Daniels).
But the Preacher is worried and distracted. When Opal goes to the grocery store she finds a large and smelly stray dog causing chaos. She impulsively claims him as hers, naming him Winn-Dixie after the store where she first saw him.
Her father says no. And the landlord says “NO!” But Winn-Dixie has his own ideas and he wants to stay with Opal. He also wants to help her make some new friends.
Before too long, Opal has a job working for the shy, guitar-playing Otis (musician Dave Matthews) at the local pet store so that she can earn the money to buy Winn-Dixie a collar. The town librarian (Eva Marie Saint) and a reclusive women reputed to be a witch (Cecily Tyson) both turn out to be great friends and wonderful story-tellers. With the help of Winn-Dixie, Opal also gets to know a girl she thought was too young and a girl her own age she thought was unfriendly, even with twin boys she thought did not like her.
As Opal becomes more confident, she finds the courage to ask the Preacher about her mother. Because of Winn-Dixie, she has developed the maturity to begin to understand the answers. And because of Winn-Dixie, the small town of Naomi becomes once again a place where people know each other’s sorrows and reach out to each other.
The best moments here are not the revelations or the coming-of-age turning points or the dog-causes-trouble slapstick but the small, quiet scenes of people connecting to each other. The film is gently touching when Opal tells the librarian and the “witch” that she wants to hear their stories and then listens attentively and when Otis plays his guitar for the animals. Those are the moments that truly convey the magic of Winn-Dixie.
Parents should know that the movie has brief mild swearing, some rude schoolyard insults, and brief poop humor. Characters refer to alcoholism, parental desertion, time spent in jail, and the (offscreen) death of a character’s sibling.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Winn-Dixie was so important to Opal. They should also discuss the importance of the way Opal listens to the stories Miss Franny and Gloria tell her. If you had to choose ten things to describe each member of the family, what would they be? What do you think of Gloria’s way of recognizing her mistakes? Why did Opal worry that it was her fault that her mother left? Why was it important that the candy was sweet and sad? Do the people in your community know each other’s sorrows? How do you learn what your one important thing is?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Fly Away Home, also with Daniels, and Where the Heart Is.