There is sage advice given to fledgling filmmakers: Steer clear of making movies with kids or animals. Why? Well, from a practical standpoint, you can only work kids and animals a few hours a day, as opposed to adults that you can have doing summersaults in the rain around-the-clock. Kids and animals on the set also mean lurking parents and Humane Society monitors. Who needs those headaches?
Furthermore, as much of a primadonna a pampered Hollywood starlet may be, she is still often motivated to learn her lines because of a big fat check at the end of filming. Kids have to wait for their trust fund to mature before they can buy their first Cadillac Escalade, and animals have no financial motivation to get the scene right.
In addition to avoiding movies with kids and animals, it is also considered wise to avoid the taboo subject of religion. Allowing for the notable exception of a cash cow such as The Passion of the Christ, religious movies simply do not make money. The feeling is that once you start to dabble into the area of theology, doctrine, and clerical collars there are too many opportunities to step on ecclesiastical toes.
Despite the previous-mentioned impediments, filmmakers are still defying the odds in order to make movies that families can watch together such as Because of Winn-Dixie. Adapted from Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning children’s book, the story revolves around a little girl named Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) and her loveable and mischief-prone mutt named Winn-Dixie whom she rescues at a grocery store. The two of them lean on each other to break the power of loneliness and rejection, and end up bringing a soulless town back to life.
Opal and her father live in a low-rent trailer park in Naomi, Florida. Her dad, whom she refers to as the Preacher (Jeff Daniels), is the new pastor of Open Arms Baptist Church which meets in a dilapidated convenience store where the congregation sits on folding patio chairs.
Opal’s effervescent love of life is closely snuggled up next to her vexing longing to know about her mother who abandoned her when she was younger. While everyone else in the congregation is reciting the Lord’s Prayer during a church service, Opal prays silently about her loneliness and asks if God could simply send her some friends.
Refreshingly, religion in Winn Dixie is not treated like a strange hobby or the obsession of a tacky televangelist. Instead, faith is treated like a normal part of life. The movie deals honestly with the strained relationship she has with her father, an emotionally wounded man who is doing the Lord’s work and loves his daughter in the best way that he knows how.
Despite the fact that Jeff Daniels (Terms of Endearment and Dumb and Dumber) says he has not been to church in 30 years, his preacher character is not heartless or clichéd. “I’m glad we didn’t go fire and brimstone with him,” he said. “It seemed to be more of a part about a man who was also a father, who was a preacher. This was his calling.” Daniels said that he wanted his character to be “a guy who loved to preach, but had some issues.” Most clergy can relate to that.
While Because of Winn-Dixie is not meant to be a religious movie, it deals respectfully and humorously with the struggles and frustrations of church life. Additionally, the cast was surprisingly open about their own spiritual journeys as they met up with a room full of faith-based movie reporters.
“I was raised a Methodist. I haven’t gone to church in 30 years,” Daniels said. “But I consider myself very spiritual. I believe in something. I’m not as specific about it as you guys. But I believe there’s something. And I’m hoping for something. And the lessons, whether it’s Jesus or whatever, you can pull from on how to live your life, are valuable, valuable lessons that I wish the whole world would adhere to better.”
One of the more endearing relationships in the film is between Opal and Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson), an eccentric and blind recluse. The 71-year-old veteran actress (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) was brought up in church, “from Sunday morning to Saturday night.” She said that it was a “source of amazement” to her friends and family that she was even in the entertainment industry because the church had become the “circumference for social activity” and she was not permitted to go to the movies. “Everything we did took place within the doors and the walls of that church.”
As she grew older, Tyson vowed she would never “enter the portals of a church again because it was my life.” She reneged on her vow and has been a long-time member of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. “I go to church on a regular basis,” she confessed. “My base is very spiritual–it has always been.”
Fans of musician and singer Dave Matthews will be delighted by his portrayal as Otis, the quirky ex-con who runs an odd pet shop. Raised in South Africa in a Quaker household, Matthews is well-aware of the struggles of faith. “Bartender, please/ Fill my glass for me/ With the wine you gave Jesus that set him free/ After three days in the ground,” he sings on his album Busted Stuff.
One of the attractions to the movie for Matthews was the way in which it highlighted the “common ground between very different people,” he said. “Though occasionally in my life I stray aside from that, my most profound philosophy is one of believing in things that bring us together,” he says. “And that was a central theme in this film for me.”
For Matthews, the little girl in the story “teaches all these people about that common place that we have, and it’s a beautiful lesson. All these lonely people, in some ways, have all lost their way, and she brings them together and with nothing but love–simple love–and hope.”
For his part, Matthews believes in a philosophy of life that elevates respect and kindness. “There have been great purveyors of that philosophy who have used different words to describe it, but I think Christ was probably the most famous of them–that respect and kindness will win the day if the day ever came,” he says. “It may or may not in my time, but I’ll still stick by it as a not unreasonable philosophy.”
Part of the joy of this movie is watching the relationship between Opal and Winn-Dixie. When she convinces her dad to allow her to take the dog to church, he howls while a quartet sings, embarrassing her father and raising more than a few eyebrows in the congregation. “He doesn’t know the words,” Opal says of the dog, “but he is sure moved by the spirit.”
When the dog spots a rodent scurrying across the floor in the middle of the service, all pandemonium breaks loose. In trying to console her crestfallen and frustrated father, Opal sweetly says, “They had not had that much fun in church in a long time.” Ah, from the mouths of babes.
The scene-stealer of Winn-Dixie is eleven-year-old AnnaSophia Robb. She is simply delightful in this movie–her debut professional acting performance. The gamble for director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) was to place her and the dog (a Picardy shepherd) in virtually every scene of the film–allowing the remainder of the cast of luminaries to accent their roles.
As she embarks on her acting career, AnnaSophia is dependent upon the watchful and discerning eyes of her parents, as well as her faith.
“I do pray. I love being able to pray just because you can tell God anything, and he just listens. And even if it doesn’t seem like he’s listening, he’s always there,” she says. “I think that’s really great because sometimes you just need someone to talk to, but you can’t talk to your friends or you can’t to your parents, and you just want to talk to someone. And I think your animals are kind of like a symbol of God because they listen to you always and they’re so sweet and they just love you, no matter what. Even if you hit them or throw them–which you definitely do not want to do–they still love you. And I think that’s wonderful.”
–Steve Beard is the creator of www.Thunderstruck.org–a website devoted to faith and pop culture.