Texas in Film | Dancer, Texas Pop. 81

By Jennifer Taylor – Special to the Navarro County Gazette

“Some folks don’t belong in a small town. Some folks don’t belong anywhere else.” 

Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 (1998) is the directorial debut from Tim McCanlies. He later wrote and directed Secondhand Lions, and penned the screenplay for the animated hit, The Iron Giant.

Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 title – Courtesy photo

The comedy/drama film is a coming of age story about four teenagers in a tiny Texas town. It’s so small, they’re able to pull out lawn chairs in the middle of the main highway and chill for hours. They’re also the town’s biggest graduating class in twenty years, with a whopping five students.

With graduation now behind them, the young men approach a promise made seven years ago – Leave their hometown for Los Angeles, California, and make that journey together.

Four friends by circumstance, who may not have hung around each other in a bigger town, spend the weekend looking forward to and dreading the upcoming Monday. Their solemn vow was to ‘Be on the bus, no matter what,’ but they find leaving is another issue.

Keller (Breckin Meyer) is the planner who desperately wants to leave most. The goal has always been to just get out. What to do after that… not so much. Terrell Lee (Peter Facinelli) is the rich kid who could survive out there with Daddy’s funds. Money comes from oil and the family business – something he’s expected to take over. Squirrel (Ethan Embry) fills out the geek role and the outsider in a group of four. Life with an alcoholic father and limited options means he’s ready to get out just as bad, if not more than Keller. Last is John (Eddie Mills), probably the most everyman of the group and a rancher’s son. Like most of the others, there are family obligations that risk breaking their seven-year vow.

The boys find they aren’t the first to want to leave, and the town takes bets on who’ll stay and who won’t. Throughout the movie, they talk to each other and townsfolk hoping for insight. Some talk about how they too left at their age, saw the world, yet came back. Another lost his brother to crime in the big city. The town veteran shares how he wanted to escape so desperately, but ended up finding his town looked like paradise after a tour of duty.

The actors are likable and a nice departure from lazy screenwriting that paints small-town America (especially Southern) with tired stereotypes. The folks who stayed or returned know they aren’t “the big city”, which suits them just fine. Likewise, it avoids the trope of perfect folksy people. There are scenes of those reaching out to help others in need before the movie shifts to an alcoholic who forgets his kid’s graduation.

As time progresses, they all evaluate their reasons for leaving and wondering if they should stay. The top concern on everyone’s mind is the possibility of breaking up their friendship. For years, what they mainly had was each other. The town was always something to forget about. They had to leave together, or else it forces everyone’s hand with other decisions.

To say what happens would give away the movie. Wondering what will happen is the question, but the true joy is seeing the four friends interact with each other. In the end, it’s not so much if they go or stay, but what they mean to each other, and what they’re willing to do in the name of a childhood promise.

Watch it for a tale of male friendship and a charming love letter to small-town America.

Connections to Texas: Shot in around Fort Davis. Written and directed by Texas transplant Tim McCanlies.