It is 1976 and eleven year old Elizabeth (Julia Sarah Stone) can't wait to grow up. Living in a small Canadian town she feels self-conscious that all her friends have had their first period while she seems stuck as a little girl. She seeks solace in her abiding love for country music superstar Dolly Parton. Then one day a school blood test reveals Elizabeth was adopted. Even though her mother Marion (Macha Grenon) tries to hide the truth, Elizabeth grows to believe everything about her life was a lie. Feeling alienated from friends and family, Elizabeth latches onto the idea that her birth mother is none other than Dolly Parton. So she runs away from home aiming to sneak across the border into the USA and go see Dolly in concert.
Happily, The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom is nowhere as kitsch as the premise might suggest. First-time writer-director Tara Johns fashions a low-key charmer that is offbeat without growing overly quirky. Anyone tempted to scoff at the film's earnest intention to hold up Dolly Parton as a feminist role model is justly put in their place the moment one character observes the famously bosomy country sweetheart also happens to be a forthright, savvy, independent-minded entrepreneur whilst still every inch a woman. As evidenced by the soundtrack she was no slouch as a songwriter either and the film is scored entirely with lyrical vintage Parton tracks. And yes, it does feature "Jolene" although the heartbreaking "Little Sparrow" remains the soundtrack highlight.
Identity is the film's central theme for Elizabeth's story is really just an extreme version of what many kids go through. Adolescence is the time when we all start searching for our identity, whether it is those things that define what we believe and what we stand for, or one a more trivial scale, what we wear and what music we listen to. More often than not this intensely personal quest sparks a schism from our parents. In this instance it leads Elizabeth to reject her seemingly staid, neurotic and controlling mother and pursue a more vibrant role model. This in turn sparks an identity crisis in Marion who lashes out at her husband (Gil Bellows, of Ally McBeal) and at one point says to a friend: "If I am not someone's mother, then who am I?" Johns also includes a sub-plot wherein Elizabeth's best friend's father abandons his big hearted feminist wife claiming he no longer knows where he fits in her life any more. The implication is that independence and the freedom for women to find themselves may come at a price but remains worthwhile and necessary.
On the one hand the plot is undeniably slight and tends to go around in circles or fall back on padding with some contrived scenes. However, Johns and cinematographer Claudine Sauvé work in some clever, subtle little visual flourishes that underscore broader themes, such as the wide open vistas that suggests a young life full of possibilities, without losing sight of the emotions at the heart of a very human story. The film is frank about the physical and emotional effects of adolescence for young girls as only one written and directed by a woman could be. Solidly acted by all concerned including newcomer Julia Sarah Stone, the most memorable sequence involves Elizabeth's encounter with a sparky but sagely Chinese woman (Tsui Mung-Ling) at a small roadside diner where she finally has her first period, to no small embarrassment. Macha Grenon proves especially strong at handling several tearful monologues without sliding into the maudlin. As a whole the film exudes a beguiling generosity of spirit that does Dolly proud.