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Dancer, Texas Pop. 81

Four guys, stuck in a nowhere Texas town, decide to reduce the population to seventy-seven by making good on an oath they took at age eleven to head for Los Angeles right after their high-school graduation. Keller (Breckin Meyer) is raring to go. But Terrell Lee (Peter Facinelli) is getting pressured by his mom (Patricia Wettig) to stay and work in the oil business with his dad (Michael O’Neill). John (Eddie Mills) wonders whether maybe he should study ranching. Even the nerdy Squirrel (Ethan Embry) thinks he might not die a virgin if he stays in Dancer and moves in on the babes his buds leave behind.

Dancer – shot in twenty-five days on a budget of $2.3 million – is a modest film of decidedly modest virtues. Still, it’s news when a major studio (TriStar) picks up a movie made by a first-time feature director (Tim McCanlies) whose wryly comic script is light on sex and gore. Just don’t go getting your expectations fired up for the Next Big Thing. McCanlies, who has been trying to have this semi-autobiographical script produced since 1984, believes in the charm of small packages.

You will, too, if you go with the flow of his low-key humor and character observations. All four young actors show promise: Embry earns laughs without straining for them, and Meyer – whose Keller is a stand-in for the filmmaker – displays the disarming ease of a screen natural. The main thing is that McCanlies has given us a town that feels lived in and townsfolk who seem real, rather than cardboard sitcom creations. Come to think of it, maybe this is a big deal.

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