If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.
Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.
Directed by Wayne Wang, Winn-Dixie is the first of two films that I saw the same day, both of them featuring characters who are very much at ease talking to or about God. Very refreshing, even though neither will come anywhere close to making my “Top Ten of 2005” list. Based on the popular book by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is the story of how a stray dog helps change for the better the lives of young India “Opal” Buloni (AnnaSophia Robb, an appealing newcomer whom I hope we will see more of), her family and her friends. Theologically, we might say that it is the story of how God uses a dog as a channel of grace. (Remember, Robert Short in his classic The Gospel According to Peanuts, in writing about Snoopy, pointed out that “dog” spelled backwards reads “God.”)
Opal is on an errand at the local Winn-Dixie grocery store when she encounters the dog, being chased throughout the store by the hapless employees trying to eject it. It comes at her friendly call, and rather than see it turned over to the dog pound, she tells the store manager that it is her dog. When he demands to know its name, she says that it is Winn-Dixie, and fortunately, the dog comes when she calls.
Her father, whom we know only as Preacher (Jeff Daniels), and she have just moved to the town, he being called as the pastor of a small congregation that meets in a converted convenience store. He is adamant that they cannot keep the dog, though under Opal’s charms, he relents enough to say that she can keep Winn-Dixie until they find his owner. The trailer court manager, where the pair live rent-free (this is part of the manager’s church pledge), however, does not relent in his demand that the get rid of the dog as soon as possible. Winn-Dixie, who had made a shambles of the displays at the grocery store, does not make matters any easier by getting into the kind of trouble that we usually see pets getting into in this kind of film.
As the story progresses we learn that both father and daughter are hurt and lonely because of Opal’s mother having left them several years earlier. Although he reassures Opal that she left him, and that Opal was in no way responsible, the young girl cannot help but wondering—and longing for the return of her mother. However, she finds mother figures in to older women, a white and an African American woman, Franny Block (Eva Marie Saint), the town librarian, and Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson), a recluse who loves growing things. It being summer, she also establishes a friendship at the pet shop run by Otis (Dave Matthews), who turns out to have been in jail for unspecified crimes. The local Barney Fife-type cop (aren’t they all like this in this kind of film?) is especially suspicious of Otis because the actual owner has left Otis in charge of the store while she is away, apparently without telling anybody. It is fortunate that Opal has made such good friends, because the children her own age do not welcome her—two brothers constantly harass her, and a girl in the congregation looks down her nose at her.
My favorite part of the film is the party that Opal and Gloria decide to host. It reminds me of the feasts that Jesus attended and came under criticism for because “he ate with sinners and outcasts.” Opal, whose original sketch of the village gradually is transformed into a colorful painting as she gets to know more of its inhabitants, creates colorful invitations and delivers them even to those who could be her enemies—the two brothers, the snooty girl, and even the hostile manager of the trailer court. Their coming together reminded me of Edward Hick’s painting “The Peaceable Kingdom.” The even is almost ruined when Winn-Dixie disappears during the rainstorm that arises suddenly (and also by the failure of her melancholy father to show up), but I do not think it is spoiling matters much to reveal that all turns out well, presenting an enjoyable picture of reconciliation and harmony.
This is a family film with flaws, but nonetheless well worth the effort to get out to see it before it is gone—it is already disappearing from screens here in Cincinnati. Parents and grandparents will do well to purchase the DVD—no doubt coming out soon—and sit with their children and follow up with some probing discussion. Despite several old clichés reinforced by the film (mainly having to do with small town characters, such as the grocery store manager and the local cop) and a rather bland characterization of a minister (Jeff Daniels does the best he can with his underwritten role), this is a film well worth watching.
For reflection/discussion (Contains spoilers!)
1) What do you think of the way in which films usually portray small town life? What about in this film?
2) What do you think of the depiction of the Preacher? How is this different from the way the clergy is so often portrayed in Hollywood films? What do film clergyman usually represent?
3) What is the name of the Preacher’s church? From what you see of his first Sunday in the pulpit, does the church live up to its name? How is this too often the case? (I have been to many churches that include “All welcome” or “A Friendly Church” on their bulletin boards, but found that the reverse to be the case!) How do you think a stranger would find your church to be? Check out at your next “Coffee” or “Fellowship Hour” and see if there are some strangers standing around with no one conversing with them, while members congregate with friends.
4) Opal tells a “white lie” concerning the fugitive dog: is this okay sometimes? When? What is the danger in a “white” lie?
5) Opal writes in her diary, “Everything good that happened that summer was because of Winn-Dixie.” How do we see Winn-Dixie as a channel of grace?
6) How is Otis with his guitar similar to St. Francis in relationship to the animals? Think about the comment, “We should judge Otis by the pretty music he plays.” 7) What do you think of the Preacher’s prayer invitation after Winn-Dixie chases the “mouse”? How did this seem to break the ice with the cold congregation? How about Opal’s comment, “People forgot to share their joy”? How do Christians sometimes fall into this?
8) Compare the Party to those Jesus attended—and to his metaphor for his Kingdom. Were you surprised that Opal invited even the trailer court manager? What effect does her invitation have on him?
9) How does the return of Winn-Dixie affect everyone? How does the Preacher finally change? Is this what grace does to us? (See—and sing—the hymn “Amazing Grace.”)