Scene from The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom (Mongrel Media & Metropole Film Distribution)
It's a road movie, a female take on the coming-of-age tale, a mother-daughter drama, and a flare-jeans- and-feathered-hair 1970s period piece, all held together with an ethereally lovely soundtrack.
Alberta-raised, Montreal-based filmmaker Tara Johns makes a tender, if sometimes too tepid feature debut with the story of 11-year-old Elizabeth (played by promising newcomer Julia Stone), who lives in an unnamed Prairie town. A huge Dolly Parton fan - "She's a trailblazer!" -Elizabeth is already grappling with the uncertainties of adolescent identity when she receives a shock. While doing a science project about blood types, Elizabeth discovers she is adopted.
Her loving but baffled dad (Gil Bellows of Ally McBeal fame) doesn't know what to do, and her adoring but almost comically uptight mother, Marion (Quebec actress Macha Grenon), is terrified. Elizabeth grabs her bike and hits the open road, determined to prove her secret fantasy that Dolly Parton is her real mother.
Working well with the young members of her cast, Johns has a real feeling for the subtle social cruelties of junior high. But she also demonstrates how Elizabeth's confusion about who she might be is echoed by her mother's crisis -- and by the tumultuous changes of the whole era.
Marion starts out looking like a woman in a Palmolive detergent ad circa 1970, untouched by the inroads of "women's lib" and determined to define herself only as a mother. (She cuts Elizabeth's meat and dresses her in Peter Pan collars and pigtails, trying to stave off her daughter's adolescence and inevitable independence.) Eventually, Marion comes undone in the middle of a beauty salon, and Grenon - who has a formidable filmography in her native Quebec, where many of the interiors were shot - does a nice job of transforming her from a Stepford Wife stereotype into a living, breathing woman.
The film seizes on some perfect period details - epically awful wallpaper, macramé hangings and a mint-condition basement rec room. It also recreates different social mores, reminding us that this was an era in which adoption was often hidden and mysterious, even shameful.
The script is uneven, but the performances are steady, and the cinematography has a wide-open, big-sky Prairie clarity. Luc Sicard's score seamlessly weaves original music with Dolly Parton songs re-interpreted by such artists as Martha Wainwright and our very own Wailin' Jennys. And there's a final voiceover appearance from Miss Dolly herself.
The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom is gentle and observant but, like Marion's mothering style, sometimes overly safe. It needs to spread its wings a little more, Dolly-style.