The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom is such a catchy title, I couldn’t resist giving the film a try. It was charming and touching and quite satisfying.
The 2012 Canadian film was written and directed by Tara Johns, who said that the idea for the story came from her mother’s relationship with Joni Mitchell. When her mother told her Joni Mitchell had given up a child for adoption, the wheels began to turn. The film is set in 1976.
Julia Sarah Stone plays 11 year old Elizabeth, who discovers that she is adopted. In her 11 year old brain, it makes perfect sense that Dolly Parton is her birth mother. When her parents Marion (Macha Grenon) and Phil (Gil Bellows) don’t know or won’t say who her biological parents are, she sets off on her bicycle to go to a Dolly Parton concert in Minneapolis.
Her mother eventually catches up with her, but not without the adventure creating big changes in both Elizabeth and Marion.
Elizabeth had been longing for breasts and a period. She finally gets her period while pedaling toward the US. It wasn’t nearly as great as she thought it would be. She meets a Chinese restaurant owner (Mung-Ling Tsui) who immediately understands her and her menstrual needs. The Chinese woman makes Elizabeth listen to a tree in order to get a totem. Her totem turns out to be a magpie, a bird that makes frequent appearances in the film, and is a messenger.
Elizabeth is with the Chinese woman when her mother finally catches up with her.
Marion tells Elizabeth the truth and takes her to a river where she spent some of her own youth. Then she and Elizabeth head for Minneapolis by crossing the border illegally on a back road that Marion knows about.
The scene by the river where Marion finally gets honest with Elizabeth was the best in the film. Marion said, “You made me into your mother, Elizabeth. And somewhere I think I’ve always been afraid that you could unmake me, too,” a line that must resonate in the heart of every adoptive parent on the planet.
When mother and daughter finally get to Minneapolis and buy one scalped ticket with their last few dollars, Elizabeth goes inside thinking Dolly Parton is going to ask her to come live with her. Once she sees all the Dolly Parton wannabees, she realizes she’s been foolish and goes back outside to her mother.
Somehow, she later receives a lovely letter from Dolly Parton, who explains gently that she isn’t her mother.
The film is set in the early days of feminism. Stella (Rebecca Croll), the neighbor, is an enthusiastic feminist. Marion, who was about as far from feminism as you could get in the beginning of the film, comes to see the value in equality as well. Marion lets down her hair – literally – as she loosens her grip on her secrets.
The soundtrack includes several Dolly Parton songs, all inserted at the most appropriate of moments. Songs by Martha Wainwright, Coral Egan, The Wailin’ Jennys, Nelly Furtado, and Geneviéve Toupin are also on the truly excellent soundtrack. (The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom soundtrack)
In addition to the female writer and director, the all female soundtrack, and the female point of view throughout, The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom’s cinematographer is Claudine Sauvé and the producers are all women. Go, Canada!