SXSW Review – ‘Dandelion’ is a Soaring Showcase of a Songwriter

SXSW Review – ‘Dandelion’ is a Soaring Showcase of a Songwriter
Kiki Layne in IFC Films' DANDELION | Credit: IFC Films

Becoming a successful singer-songwriter is not an easy gig. There’s so much competition and it takes connections in order to be discovered, and even then it might be difficult to truly arrive at the right time with the sound and look that those with money and access want to see. Most people just starting their careers work other jobs to pay the bills and write and perform only in their spare time. Dandelion is a captivating look at one young woman trying to make it one last time before she gives up for good.

Theresa (KiKi Layne) lives in Cincinnati, where she gets to play her music at a bar a few nights a week. Overwhelmed by negative interactions with her mother (Melanie Nicholls-King), she decides to travel to South Dakota for a motorcycle rally with a music component that could allow her to be widely seen. Her car breaks down after a disastrous first performance, and her stolen guitar case is rescued by her motorcycle-riding knight in shining armor, Casey (Thomas Doherty). He invites her to join his group of musicians, beginning an intoxicating immersion into the kind of life she’s always wanted.

Writer-director Nicole Riegel returns with her second feature, following 2021’s Holler, bringing another focused take on moving through the world as a woman. Little of Theresa’s life aside from her present-day relationship with her mother is shown, and audiences instead get to know Dandelion, the name she uses when she’s performing and which she gives to Casey, who asks what her real name is and doesn’t get an answer. Dandelion is the personality she wants to have, and it’s not always easy assuming that identity when, in truth, she’s actually someone different.

Music is understandably a big part of Dandelion, and all the original songs composed for this film help to establish and maintain its mood. It’s best compared to a John Carney film like Once, where the focus isn’t on what the finished product is going to be but instead on the magic of the process and the electricity of the performances, which are hypnotic but also temporary, leaving those playing the music and those watching to move on with their lives after taking part in a moment of true connection and wonder. It’s the kind of music where the lyrics themselves aren’t necessarily memorable, but there’s something entrancing about hearing it played that still lingers long after the scene ends.

In less than a decade, Layne has amassed an impressive list of credits, including If Beale Street Could Talk, Native Son, Coming 2 America, and Don’t Worry Darling. This could well be a career-defining turn, though she’s just at the beginning of what should hopefully be a long and prolific period of success. She brings a naturalism to the role of Dandelion and a fascinating vulnerability, one that manifests itself most as shyness on stage, detached from the confidence she has in her lyrics and the meaning of her songs when she most needs to appear strong and forceful in front of everyone watching her.

Paired with Layne, Doherty is instantly this film’s romantic lead, charming but not too self-assured and keenly interested in Dandelion. He seems too good to be true, which is part of what Dandelion is forced to experience as she gets closer to him, not bothering to check on her dead car or to worry about whatever life she’s left behind in Ohio. This film doesn’t glamorize this lifestyle or prescribe an unbelievably optimistic ending for Dandelion on this journey, but it does chart a realistic and very compelling course, with superb performances and music to be found all along the way.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Dandelion makes its world premiere in the 24 Beats Per Second section at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival and will be released later this year by IFC Films.

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