Tara John’s directorial debut is the coming-of-age story of Elizabeth (Julia Sarah Stone), an 11-year-old on the brink of an adolescence that is taking its sweet time in getting here and making a woman of Elizabeth in ‘70s Canada. Amid the frustration on awaiting her period and the complicated politics of pre-pubescent friendships, Elizabeth learns via a school science project that she’s actually adopted.
The news inevitably creates a myriad of problems for Elizabeth and her family. Her mother Marion (Macha Grenon) tries to connect with her daughter but is held back by her shame of not being Elizabeth’s real mother and the idea of ‘50s womanhood that she’s lived her whole life by. After a few days of sulking and investigating her parentage, Elizabeth comes to a momentous conclusion. Her favourite singer, Dolly Parton, could be her birth mother. Based on nothing more than a butterfly shaped birthmark on her hip and a gut feeling, Elizabeth decides to run away to see Dolly perform live in the States hoping that she’ll have a momentous reunion with her real mother.
Comparing American cinema to Canadian cinema is difficult when you’re fed on a diet of the latest US releases and see so few of the other, yet they’re so inherently similar it’s impossible not to. Canadian films like this one, with their minimalist mise-en-scène and somewhat off-beat characters, could easily be mistaken for ‘quirky’ American films and is only a few beats away from becoming a Sofia Coppola or Mark Duplass movie. The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mum is classically Canadian; understated, simplistic with delicate performances. Unfortunately, this brand of subtlety is too much for this undemanding story to take and leaves the movie completely devoid of energy. What should be an exciting tale of self-discovery for Elizabeth ends up as a sweet but plain mother-daughter bonding session that wouldn’t be out of place in a TV movie.
The performances fare much better than the film itself. Julia Sarah Stone grows up in front of your eyes, effortlessly transitioning from child to teen and bringing with her the stronger sense of self that Elizabeth was sorely lacking at the beginning of her story. Macha Grenon is wonderful as the seemingly repressed mother who chases after her questioning daughter to prove that, as neighbour Stella puts it, she may not be the mother who brought Elizabeth into the world, but she’s damn sure the mother who will guide her through it.
As it’s Tara John’s debut into feature filmmaking, this is surely just a taste of things to come but hopefully she’ll overcome whatever it is that’s holding her back. This movie could have been and definitely should have been much more engaging but Johns chose to remain controlled and inhibited in her choices. Visually it’s a fairly pretty movie to look at, Canada’s flat and barren landscape is daunting to Elizabeth and rightly so considering she is riding her bike all the way to see Dolly, but there’s only so many ways to make flat land interesting.
Aside from a brief sojourn to listen to middle-aged Chinese women help Elizabeth look for her magic totem, Elizabeth’s story is kept to the barest of bones and there’s very little conflict to overcome which explains the lack of motivation for the audience to stay awake. If they do, they might find that The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mum is a welcome reprieve from American offerings and that it’s quietness is actually quite refreshing. Or more likely, that Canadian cinema is exactly what they expected it to be and will turn it off to watch Django Unchained.