For cute 11-year-old Elizabeth (Julia Stone) in Tara Johns’ film The Year Dolly Parton was My Mom, puberty’s not much fun. Her classmates are starting their periods and allegiances are shifting because hers hasn’t arrived yet. And if that’s not enough, she discovers she’s adopted – during a science lesson!
However, the year is 1976, and in Elizabeth’s Canadian hometown Dolly Parton is big (big in popularity I mean!!). She has a gig coming up in Minneapolis and her face and music are everywhere. After noticing a poster of Dolly in a shop window looking down at her like a guardian angel, Elizabeth catches the opening of The Dolly Show on TV at home where the buxom star is lowered to the stage on a swing singing Love is Like a Butterfly. For Elizabeth this is significant because she has a butterfly-shaped birthmark. She puts two and two together, makes five, and convinces herself that Dolly is her birth mum, and makes plans to run away from home to meet her.
Of course, as can be expected, Elizabeth’s expedition to meet the mother of her dreams doesn’t go too smoothly. An unanticipated border crossing and the arrival of her eagerly-anticipated period are just two of the many hurdles she has to deal with. Luckily though, her distraught adoptive mother is already behind the wheel and on the road trying to track her down.
Without revealing too much I’ll say that little Libby ends up learning that others don’t necessarily have it better even if appearances suggest otherwise. More importantly, she discovers that she is responsible for her own happiness, or as Dolly Parton puts it in a fabulous voice cameo; “Whatever you are, be that – and be good at it.”
Director Tara Johns apparently chose to place Dolly Parton at the heart of her road movie after hearing a radio interview with the star and being blown away by what a strong and independent woman she is – a real role mode, especially for girls in the 70s.
And with this being a coming-of-age film with a strong message about love, tolerance and self worth, Johns’ choice of Dolly for the big-wigged catalyst is genius. To get the superstar’s blessing too provides the icing on the cake, as the film is packed with Dolly paraphernalia: vintage pics, clips, original songs, plenty of Dolly song covers, and of course that fabulous voice cameo..
It goes without saying that this is a must-see for any Dolly fan, but for non-Dolly fans it has much to offer too – fantastic performances by Julia Stone as the confused Elizabeth and Macha Grenon as her anxious mother, a charming retro setting, and a brilliant underlying message about equality and acceptance. Lovely.