Evoking the spirit of Frank Capra’s Depression comedies, without their nostalgia or sentimentality, “Dancer, Texas Pop. 81,” Tim McCanlies’ impressive directorial feature debut, is an immensely charming small-town movie about the solemn vow of a quartet of high-schoolers to leave home and the effects of their fateful decision on the remaining 77 residents. With the right handling, TriStar, which acquired the film a week after it went into production, could score big among teenage and twentysomething viewers with a film that exhibits a fresh regional voice.
Dancer, Texas, is such a provincial and dormant town that it doesn’t even merit a place on the Rand McNally road map, which creates tremendous resentment and moral indignation among the locals. Situated in the middle of Brewster County, right off Highway 91, it’s a town where the “shopping mall” is a general store that sells veggies and fruit along with auto parts. Its tiny, five-room school boasts 41 students and a high school graduating class of five — the largest in two decades.
When four of the town’s youngsters announce their resolution to move to L.A. upon graduation, practically every resident feels threatened by their decision. Mobilizing its creative resources, the town rallies to stop them from fulfilling a fantasy that they have been talking about since the age of 11.
Set during the foursome’s intended last weekend in Dancer, McCanlies’ sharply scripted comedy smoothly integrates serious and contemplative moments into its structure. It depicts rather hilariously the various encoun-ters the youngsters have with town residents, which have the effect of increasing their anxiety over the future.
Though the pic is very much an ensemble piece, McCanlies constructs a distinctive profile — and set of problems — for each of the four main characters. Keller (Breckin Meyer), clearly the scripter’s alter ego, is the most anxious to get out of town, but he still doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do. The wealthy Lothario of the group, handsome Terrell Lee Lusk (Peter Facinelli), is held back by demands of his parents (nicely played by Patricia Wettig and Michael O’Neill), who expect him to work in the family oil business — until he realizes that the enterprise is not as profitable as he was led to believe.
Living with his alcoholic father in a shabby trailer, Squirrel (Ethan Embry) feels that his background justifies his departure — until he meets his dad’s new, friendly g.f. and faces some realities that force him to reexamine his vow. Rounding out the quartet is the voice of reason and most grounded member, John Hemphill (Eddie Mills), a natural born rancher who struggles with his own dilemmas.
Perhaps not since the eccentric early comedies of Jonathan Demme (“Citizens Band,” aka “Handle With Care,” and “Melvin and Howard”) has there been an American comedy that captures the unique texture of small-town life without condescending to its characters. A product of such a milieu, director McCanlies understands that a nonjudgmental approach is key to such a story’s success; in that spirit, he highlights, rather than conceals, the idiosyncratic personalities, dialect and humor of his dozen or so characters.
Composed of young, fresh actors (with some experience), the cast is uniformly strong and appealing, which puts the audience in the rather awkward but desirable position of rooting for each character, no matter what decision he’ll be making.
Tech credits for the picture, which was shot in 25 days around Fort Davis, Texas, are admirably modest, be-fitting the material, with a particularly strong contribution from Andrew Dintenfass, whose lensing evokes with precision the unique texture of small-town life, which is becoming a rare component in the new American cinema.