In one scene in "Because of Winn-Dixie," two young boys, all grass stains and whifflecuts, peer through the front door keyhole of a faded Southern mansion. One turns to the other and says with immeasurable disgust, "They're just sittin' in there talkin' about how they feel." Then the two run off like frightened cats.
Children who are used to the rapid-fire sugar shock of Disney and Nickelodeon movies may feel the same way. No one gets slimed in "Winn-Dixie" -- except, occasionally, by life -- but this adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's 2000 young-adult novel has sturdier strengths than the latest digital-effects whiz-bang or pandering Hilary/Lindsay extravaganza. In pace, sensibility, and big, beating heart, this is a child's first indie film, and it's the better for it.
Ten-year-old Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) has moved with her dad, whom she calls Preacher (Jeff Daniels), to a flyspeck Florida hamlet called Naomi, where he has been hired to minister to the local Baptist congregation. The "church" is a converted storefront; father and daughter live rent-free at a local trailer park so the crotchety owner (B.J. Hopper) can get a tax deduction; the few kids Opal's age don't want anything to do with her. It's high summer and the girl's spirits couldn't be lower, especially since Preacher refuses to talk about her mother, who vanished when she was 3.
Girl needs a dog, clearly. And so, one afternoon when she runs down to the local Winn-Dixie supermarket, there is a rawboned mutt scampering through the produce section. Opal claims him, names him after the store -- this is serendipity, not product placement -- and brings him home to a slack-jawed father.
Oh, for pity's sake, haven't we been here before? Repeat after me: Winn-Dixie will bring Preacher around, he'll introduce Opal to all the lonely individuals of Naomi, and he'll teach her the value of friendship and connection before worrisome plot contrivances kick in during the final act. And he won't die because no one has killed off a dog since "Old Yeller."
All these things happen, true. But it's the way they happen that gives "Because of Winn-Dixie" its jerry-built charm and considerable emotional impact. Directed by Wayne Wang (a long way from his artful street-film beginnings with 1982's "Chan Is Missing"), the movie unfolds to the rhythms of summer in the deep South and finds humanity in everyone Opal meets. The prissy girl (Courtney Jines) has reasons for her meanness; those twin boys (Nick Price and Luke Benward) turn out to have gentlemanly streaks. A kid named Sweetie Pie (Elle Fanning, Dakota's sister) drifts through like the ghost of Truman Capote in the body of a 6-year-old girl. The genteel town librarian (Eva Marie Saint) tells Opal about her Civil War-era forebear, who invented a candy imbued with sadness -- and in a touch of magical realism, she produces a tin and gets everyone in the cast sampling and sighing.
By contrast, the local eccentric, Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson), puts her sins in old bottles, hangs them from a tree in her yard, and lets the wind carry them away. Tyson defeats a fright wig and a Moms Mabley accent to deliver a deft performance, and she becomes the surrogate grandmother to Opal and the town's other lost kids, even as Preacher is slowly filling in the blanks about his errant wife. The scene in which he grudgingly tells his daughter 10 Things About Her Mother is a tart object lesson in memorializing those who hurt us most.
The dog, obviously, gives the finest performance -- or dogs, since more than one was used. They're Picardy shepherds and they have rather more screen charisma than Dave Matthews, who plays a young ex-con named Otis who runs the pet store. Even here, though, the movie's subtlety works in its favor. The sequence in which Otis, a sort of St. Francis of Assisi with guitar chops, tells Opal his sad story and turns it into song as he strums, shouldn't work -- at all -- but its very tentativeness gives it weight.
Given his background as a mega-selling recording artist, it's fair to say Matthews gives a two-note performance, but he doesn't drag the movie down. The same can't be said for Harland Williams ("Dumb and Dumber"), whose slapstick buffoonery as the town cop seems imported from some dim "Home Alone" clone. But you understand why Wang put him in. "Because of Winn-Dixie" is so interior at times, so attuned to private sorrows, that you can sense the filmmakers desperately looking around for comic relief, even if it has no business there.
Judging from the steady stream of moms and small toddlers toward the exits at the screening I attended, "Winn-Dixie" isn't for the wee ones. Too much happens between the characters and not enough to them. Instead, this sweet, slow coming-of-age drama should hit the sweet spot for girls 8 to 12 (mine loved it), kids who read, dog lovers, and parents of all of the above. After the screening, I asked one mother of a 4-year-old whether the movie had gone over his head. "He was restless," she admitted, wiping a tear from her eye, "but I loved it." Take that, Disney.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.