Texas Pop. 81
Between high school graduation and the next bus out of town, four teenage guys knock around their old stomping grounds. Although the boys have all vowed to leave together for the big city, the rules governing this sort of whimsical, low key story decree that, come the big moment, not all of them will get on the bus. This simple mechanism generates the basic tension and pathos of Dancer, Texas Pop. 81.
Like American teen movies reaching back to American Graffiti (1973), this one focuses on a suspended, liminal moment that stands for the difficult transition between childhood and adulthood. As Keller (Breckin Meyer), Terrell Lee (Peter Facinelli), Squirrel (Ethan Embry) and John (Eddie Mills) say their goodbyes to family and reminisce about their bonding rituals, they begin to doubt themselves and their collective plan. Arguments break out; long buried resentments surface; unfinished obligations press upon them.
There is something sad and even depressing about the emotional landscape of this little movie. No one except the four main characters even dreams of leaving this small town – like secondary characters in a Frank Capra film, they are perfectly content with their lot. Family obligation weighs on these citizens like a particularly onerous and joyless burden. Debut writer-director Tim McCanlies never entirely convinces us that this status quo is worth anyone's while, despite the soft mists of nostalgia that seem to surround it.
Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 is a mildly pleasant mosaic of small town life, mainly animated by the easy charms of its young cast. But it is unspectacular and easily forgettable, more suited for video than big screen consumption. It is also annoyingly conservative in its assumptions – such as the premise that only teenage guys would want to bust out of town, never their faithful, ever-waiting, long-suffering girlfriends.
© Adrian Martin October 1998