Dancer, Texas
directed by Tim McCanlies
(TriStar, 1998)

Dancer, Texas (population 81) is on the verge of a crisis.

Eighty percent of this year's graduating class has decided to pack in the west Texas town for the more fertile job fields of Los Angeles. The four young men -- there is also a young woman in the graduating class -- have not only made a solemn vow to leave town on the first bus after graduation, they've bought their tickets in advance -- two years in advance. But between Saturday's graduation and Monday's Greyhound are two long days in which the young Texans have the chance to think things over, not to mention being manipulated by friends and family, who long ago began taking bets on how many would board the bus.

That makes Dancer, Texas a sort of west Texas 48 Hours, though the point is not so much to bring in an escapee as to escape the narrow confines of small-town life. Keller, Terrell Lee, John and Squirrel can't seem to find much to do in Dancer, except sit on lawn chairs in the middle of Route 90 and talk about what they'll do when they get to L.A. But the closer the bus gets, the farther apart the boys grow, and it becomes less and less clear that any of these young graduates will leave Dancer.

That makes Dancer, Texas also a sort of outlands American Graffiti, though there's precious little rock 'n' roll on the soundtrack and no Wolfman Jack, just a few wild mustangs.

Writer-director Tim McCanlies is after something a little different in Dancer. The film starts as a quirky comedy, with Keller (Breckin Meyer) reading a letter he's written to Rand McNally concerning Keller's interest in getting Dancer on the map. But a few hundred piano arpeggios later it's clear that McCanlies has plans to tug on your heartstrings, and, in his best moments, he succeeds.

Most of those best moments revolve around Meyer, who gives a Sean Pennish performance as Keller, the strikingly mature young man with a long-held hankering for things Dancer can't offer; he wants to go, but feels responsible for his aging grandfather (Wayne Tippet), the town's fiercest flyswatter and epicenter of all widow activity thereabouts.

The weakest moments involve Squirrel (Ethan Embry), who's often over the top in his attempts to wring pathos from his pathetic attempts to date one of the town's three eligible women.

The real laughs come from Robert's younger sister, Josie (Ashley Johnson), who becomes obsessed with a plan for John to stay on and become a "meat science major" at the nearby college. It's a good bit, the kind that brings quirkiness and character together to make a statement about the human condition -- the kind McCanlies could have used more of.

McCanlies does a wonderful job of bouncing back and forth between the town's colorful characters and its reluctant teen rebels, and he wrings lot of heartache out of the dry Texas landscape; his sense of place is right on the mark. But his ultimate descent into unrelieved sentimentality -- complete with a feel-good ending -- betrays the film's opening quirkiness and calls into question the originality of his vision. Too bad. For a while there, that vision was looking pretty darn good.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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