Christians have become more prominent in Hollywood lately, both as film makers and as film critics — and the press junket for Because of Winn-Dixie, a charming adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Honor-winning children’s book, offers ample evidence of both.
On the one hand, the film, about a preacher’s kid and her pet dog, was produced by Walden Media, a relatively new company funded by Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz; having adapted other school-library staples like Holes and I Am David, Walden is now working on the upcoming film version of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
On the other hand, the studio distributing Because of Winn-Dixie has devoted an entire room to reporters from the religious media — but as the stars of the film take turns sitting down and fielding questions, it sometimes seems the Christian journalists here are still reluctant to believe that good things can come from Tinseltown.
One reporter greets Jeff Daniels, the actor who plays the preacher, by remarking, “It’s so refreshing to see a film with a preacher who isn’t a cross-dressing, transvestite, pedophile, alcoholic mass murderer.” Daniels, looking slightly puzzled, asks, “Do you get a lot of those?”
Fortunately, you don’t have to be desperate for good movie preachers in order to appreciate the palpable humanity Daniels brings to his role. As a Baptist minister who struggles to plant a new church in an abandoned convenience store, and who has had to raise his child alone ever since his wife abandoned him, Daniels was able to connect with the character’s love of preaching by relating it to his own love of acting.
“This was his calling, he definitely was going to spend his life preaching,” he says, adding that he wanted to focus on how the character balanced his vocation with his obligations as a single father. “So I just stayed away from the fire and brimstone. That seemed to be a little cliché. I made it just a guy who loved to preach. That’s what his mission is.”
Daniels himself was raised Methodist but hasn’t been to church in decades, except to see his Catholic wife — to whom he has been married for 25 years — sing at Mass every Christmas Eve.
“But I consider myself very spiritual,” he says. “I believe in something. I’m not as specific about it as you guys, but I believe there’s something and I’m hoping for something. And the lessons — whether it’s Jesus or whatever — that you can pull from on how to live your life, are valuable, valuable lessons that I wish the whole world would adhere to.”
As a playwright and the founding director of the Purple Rose theatre in Chelsea, Michigan — named after Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, which gave him one of his first big breaks — Daniels has tackled the subject of religious filmmaking, in a play called Thy Kingdom’s Coming, about a Jean-Claude Van Damme-style action hero who tries to turn the Bible into a star vehicle for himself. Any resemblance to The Passion is purely coincidental.
“It was different from what Mel did,” says Daniels. “He obviously believed in it and this is what he was going to do, put his own money into it and his passion into it, so to speak — but [what the characters in the play did] was completely a career move. They saw this huge audience — in a way, it’s prophetic, because, you know, Mel tapped into that huge audience that you know so well — so these guys were thinking they could tap into that.”
While Daniels is reluctant to get specific about his beliefs, at least one of his co-stars — ten-year-old newcomer AnnaSophia Robb — is quite willing to talk about her Christian faith.
Asked if she prays like Opal, the preacher’s daughter she plays in the film, Robb replies, “I do pray, and I love being able to pray just because you can tell God anything, and just listen, and even if it doesn’t seem like he’s listening, he’s always there. And I think that’s really great, because sometimes you just need someone to talk to, but you can’t talk to your friends or you can’t talk to your parents, and you just want to talk to someone.”
The film is named for a stray dog that Opal picks up in a grocery store, and like other recent canine protagonists — think My Dog Skip — Winn-Dixie is something of a Christ-figure, an agent of unpredictable grace who brings people together. (To cite just one of several visual and narrative allusions, a parrot that comes to rest on the dog’s head is curiously reminiscent of the dove that descended on Jesus after his baptism.)
Robb — who counts dogs, frogs, owls, and salamanders among her favorite creatures — echoes the idea that pets can show us something of God’s nature. “I think your animals are kind of like a symbol of God, because they listen to you always, and they’re so sweet and they just love you, no matter what. Even if you hit them or throw them — which you definitely do not want to do! — they still love you. And I think that’s wonderful.”
Robb, who has attended a Christian private school and is currently being home-schooled by her parents, says she would like to be in films that are for grown-ups as well as films for children, “because when I get to be an adult, I don’t want to be in Barney videos, y’know. . . . I love kid movies because they usually have really good morals, but adult movies are good too, because they have action stuff and they’re a little more serious.”
Which is not to say that films like Because of Winn-Dixie don’t tackle serious themes. The grown-ups Opal meets — including a guitarist hounded by cops (Dave Matthews), a spinster librarian clinging to her family’s legacy (Eva Marie Saint), and an elderly woman haunted by her own battles with the bottle (Cicely Tyson) — all bring their issues to the table.
And for children, what can be scarier than moving from town to town and always having to deal with strangers? Asked if she has any advice for children who find themselves in Opal’s situation, Robb replies, “Don’t be afraid of other kids, because some of them are kind of mean, but if you really try to love them and be kind to them, they’ll be nice to you… It’s okay if you’re shy, but you have to make some friends, and I think having a dog is a good way to start — unless you’re allergic to one! But anyways, lots of kids like to pet dogs.”