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I don't have complicated litmus tests for potential friends. If you're kind, curious, funny, you're in. Pretty simple. However, there is an exception. If you don't like Dolly Parton, if the first thing you say about her is a crack about her figure or plastic surgery, if you don't seem to "get it," then ... we probably won't ever be close. Life is too short to waste time explaining to a skeptic that Dolly Parton is a great artist, a cultural icon, and—in general—a national treasure. In fact, she's an international treasure, as "Seriously Red" clearly indicates. "Seriously Red" is about a huge Dolly Parton fan who wanders, almost by accident, fueled by desperation and a mild drinking problem, into the world of celebrity imitators. Written by Krew Boylan, who also stars as the eponymous Red, "Seriously Red" is ostensibly "about" this, but the film's light-hearted tone and mood are deceptive. The exploration is deep, very deep, so much so that one could easily imagine a much darker and edgier film could have been the result. As it is, "Seriously Red" sneaks up on you. It's not what it seems to be on the surface.
Red is a mess. She lives in the garage behind her mother's house and goes inside every day for meals. She's never snipped the apron strings. She is a serial job-loser. Something always seems to go wrong. She's "quirky," but it's quirkiness with an edge. When she drinks too much, she goes bananas. In fact, this is how she loses her latest job. At a company party, dressed up like Dolly Parton, complete with a blonde wig and a skin-tight orange jumpsuit, she got wasted and lurched around the dance floor, grabbing her male co-workers' crotches. Apparently, this will not fly in a corporate environment, and Red is sent packing. She tries to cheer up by murmuring quotes from Dolly in a mantra, attempting to wiggle into self-worth, dignity, and optimism. How does Dolly do it? Is it a fake it til you make it kind of thing? Or is Dolly's philosophy the real deal? What would it be like to actually BE Dolly? It's not just the fame and fortune part Red finds appealing. Dolly's outlook is the real magic.
Down on her luck, Red signs up for an open-mic audition for Dolly impersonators at a local gay club. She's surrounded by drag queen Dollys. She doesn't know what she's doing, and her nerves get the better of her. The gulf between her love of Dolly and her ability to be Dolly, or, rather, be like Dolly, is vast, and she feels the vast abyss in front of the crowd. She finds her sea legs only when she starts bantering with the audience, stringing together Dolly quotes. She comes alive as Dolly, and she catches a whiff of the "real thing." You can see the transformation take place. So can Teeth (Celeste Barber), a woman in the crowd, who also just happens to manage a famous Kenny Rogers imitator. "Kenny" is looking for a "Dolly" to go on tour with him. Maybe this nervous woman with a bright smile will do the trick! (Speaking of Celeste Barber, her delirious Instagram feed helped me get through the 2020 lockdown.)
Red's social life is small. Francis (Thomas Campbell), her best friend from childhood, is still her best friend. He comes over for dinner every day. They bicker like siblings. He supports her in her love of Dolly, and goofs around wearing Dolly wigs. One night, Red hooks up with an Elvis impersonator (Rose Byrne, hilarious). This has repercussions later in the film, particularly when it comes to Red's impulsive decision to get breast implants. The psychological deterioration of the Elvis impersonator throughout the film, from top dog headliner to sulky lush at the bar, watching Red surpass him in success, is one of the jokes embedded in the film. But in general, Red doesn't have a lot going for her. And so being plucked out of her chaotic little life into the celebrity imitator circuit is heady stuff.
Suddenly, overnight, she's in a club in Singapore, tricked out as Dolly, singing "Islands in the Stream" with the famous "Kenny" (Daniel Webber). The crowd goes wild. As she gets more experience, her performance improves. Kenny lives his life as Kenny Rogers 24/7. He won't call Red by her real name. She has to wear her wig at all times. The sex is unbelievable. But maybe it's unbelievable because they're both avoiding being themselves. He wants to go into the fantasy totally. Bobby Cannavale hovers on the sidelines as Wilson, a former Neil Diamond impersonator who runs the club where Red performs. He gives Red a chance and also gives advice when necessary. At one point, Red begs Wilson for something, and Wilson stops her short: "Hey. Dolly don't beg."
Being a "fan" of someone can obviously tip over into obsession, and Red takes it further than most. But she does discover things—courage, humor, philosophy—reserves she never knew she had, by pretending to be Dolly Parton. The transformation is not complete, though. It never will be. Red is a deeply lonely and unhappy woman. There are moments where her Dolly performances feel almost like dissociative episodes. The self dissolves. Maybe there was never much of a self to begin with. Maybe Red will claw some meaning out of life for herself and find her way. Until then, Dolly quotables will have to do.
If you find yourself in times of trouble, asking "What Would Dolly Do?" is a good place to start.
Now playing in theaters.
Krew Boylan as Red
Daniel Webber as Kenny
Celeste Barber as Teeth
Thomas Campbell as Francis
Jean Kittson as Viv
Bobby Cannavale as Wilson / Neil Diamond
Rose Byrne as Elvis
Todd Lasance as Forbes
Wayne Blair as Lionel
Nell Campbell as Doc Nell