Written and directed by small town native Tim McCanlies, Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 is a film that shares many of the same qualities of a small town. It’s small, unassuming, easygoing and has a certain kind of charm that will resonate well with audiences anxious for a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of big budgeted Hollywood extravaganzas.
Dancer is a very small town in West Texas, composed mostly of ranchers, oilmen and their families. Dancer’s largest senior class (5) is about to graduate, and a moment of truth is coming for four of the boys. As children, the four best friends made a solemn vow to leave Dancer for Los Angeles on the Monday following graduation. However, now that day is fast approaching, and the four young adults are now having second thoughts about leaving behind everything they have known.
The leader of the foursome, Keller (Breckin Meyer), has meticulously researched and plotted every facet of the trip…but he never counted on a mutiny. The first one to voice doubts is Terrell Lee (Peter Facinelli), whose overbearing parents (Patricia Wettig and Michael O’Neill) want him to continue the family oil business. But also experiencing second thoughts are the rancher John (Eddie Mills), who wonders about the place of a cowboy in L.A., and the oddball Squirrel (Ethan Embry), who starts thinking of his alcoholic father (Keith Szarabajka).
As the four teens deliberate their future and reflect upon their past, we are treated to a knowing glimpse at the charms and pains of small town life. The pace of the movie is as slow and relaxed as a warm summer day, but, since it fits the mood of the movie, it is not distracting in the slightest.
The four leads are engaging (though Embry overacts a bit as the most comical of the four). But the whole of the film works much better on the ensemble level…there’s not anyone who particularly stands out from the cast, but the combined whole manage to create a realistically pleasant small town atmosphere.
Though the question of whether or not the four friends will actually leave has set the town of Dancer abuzz, it’s not as much of a mystery to a knowing audience. If you’re familiar with typical movie conventions, it’s not that big of a challenge to accurately predict who will stay and who will go. At least, enjoyment of the movie is not contingent on the suspense.
Those expecting an explosion around every corner might be disappointed by Dancer, Texas Pop. 81. But, for those looking for entertainment with a change of pace, the movie delivers an enjoyable break from the razzle-dazzle of big budget fare.