An ingratiating but overly contrived Canadian coming-of-age tale, The Year Dolly Parton was My Mom is a "period" film in more than one sense. The story, set in 1976, follows 11-year-old Elizabeth (Julia Stone), who we first meet anxiously checking out her underwear in the hope that she has begun to menstruate.
Elizabeth is also obsessed with developing breasts and, along with her best friend Annabelle (Rebecca Windheim), she idolizes bosomy country singer Dolly Parton - who, that same year, was making her transition from country to pop mainstream.
Elizabeth's stay-at-home mom Marion (Macha Grenon), who seems more stuck in 1956 than 1976, is neurotic and over-protective. Dad (Gil Bellows) is amiable and forward-looking. Elizabeth's parents have not told her she was adopted, and they invented a bedtime story about her birth night. She learns the truth while doing a school assignment on blood types and is understandably upset at being lied to.
Adding to her problems, Annabelle finds new friends, and schoolmates mock Elizabeth as a "bastard." She decides, on scant evidence, that Dolly Parton must be her real mother and that she should go see the singer, who's conveniently having a concert across the border in Minneapolis.
Young actress Julia Stone hits the right notes as a bright, independent kid without seeming precocious, but her credibility is undermined by the script. As Elizabeth moves out of her parent's cocoon onto the open road, the movie becomes a fabricated quirk-a-thon. In a scene used on the film's poster and previewed before the opening credits, Elizabeth - wearing her hair pinned up, make-up and a gaudy outfit with white boots and a pink and green chiffon skirt - peddles down the highway on her banana-seat bike, with the vast prairie sky as her backdrop. It's a resonant image (sort of a cross between Little Miss Sunshine and David Lynch's The Straight Story), though, like the movie's title, it's an amusing idea without a credible dramatic context.
Particularly perplexing is a sequence when Elizabeth, who has now adopted the name "Roby," arrives at a diner run by a Chinese-Canadian woman (Mung Ling Tsui) who talks like she's in a 1930s detective flick, serves the child tea laced with whisky and inexplicably suggests Elizabeth go sit under a tree in a Native Canadian vision quest to find her totem. This is possibly supposed to be an example of the value of composite identities: As Marion's activist hair-dresser friend (Rebecca Croll) explains, like Dolly, you can be all-woman and a feminist too.
As the movie's patron saint of resplendent individualism, Parton does not appear in the film. Instead, she lends her voice to two segments, and to the soundtrack, as well as providing other songs sung by such Canadian artists as Martha Wainwright, Coral Egan and Nelly Furtado.
After what feels like a long preamble, the film really only finds its emotional footing in the last third, in a bonding road trip between a headstrong child and a fearful, neurotic mother who is beginning to learn to let go. It's a relief when Quebec star Macha Grenon is finally allowed to stop being a prig and can act like a warm human being. Even here, the momentum is tied to a radio contest for free tickets in an attempt to generate suspense before a foregone conclusion. For a film that purports to celebrate flamboyance, Dolly Parton feels cautious to a fault.
The Year Dolly Parton was My Mom
- Written and directed by Tara John
- Starring Julia Stone, Macha Grenon and Gil Bellows
- Classification: PG