How do you solve a problem like Annie Mary? Writer-director Sara Sugarman's spirited not-quite musical Very Annie Mary opens with a tight shot of a baker's delivery van moving along a road, accompanied by the effusive, grandiose strains of Pavarotti singing Puccini. As the van passes, the camera pulls back to reveal miles of unfettered, emerald countryside—our first view of the gorgeous rolling hills of south Wales. You could say these hills are Sugarman's equivalent of the Alpine landscape of The Sound of Music, and her principal character, the artless, delightfully screwball Annie Mary (Rachel Griffiths), a substitute for Julie Andrews' Maria. Both characters are consumed by the rich fantasy lives they've dreamed up to cope with their rigid existences, and song serves as an escape route from their own mediocrity, though the way to freedom remains barred by overbearing men. Thankfully however, Sugarman has no use for the earlier film's earnestness and dispenses with its cloying, convent-raised heroine's romantic pursuit. If Very Annie Mary is a reinvention of The Sound of Music, it's an acidic one, with a sense of humor that's skewed and barbed. And if Annie Mary is a free spirit like Maria, she has every intention of staying that way.
As the van makes its way through the winding roads that lead to Ogw, a small town in the valley, the driver, his face hidden behind a Pavarotti mask, sings opera, his voice booming from loudspeakers mounted on the van's roof. The locals wave familiarly to this cartoonish apparition as he sweeps into town—this is a community so tight that it's accustomed to the idiosyncrasies its members have developed to stave off the isolation and suffocation of small-town existence. But contrary to what you might expect, the inhabitants of the Garw Valley find life neither grim nor boring—when gossiping and infighting disrupt the social fabric it's almost always due to Annie Mary's antics. In this opening scene Sugarman captures something like the sweeping elation that musicals achieve through the surefire pairing of beautiful vistas and lush score, establishing a giddy, playful tone that sustains this colorful off-kilter love letter to the landscapes and cultural quirks of Wales from beginning to end. It's as satisfying and restorative as a good long laugh.
Very Annie Mary is grounded in the Welsh national obsession with singing. This is a country known the world over for its vocalists and choirs, and in the film nearly everyone's got the bug, whether they sing well or not. Even the characters' accents are musical, their lines delivered with the raised inflection of a question—the entire film seems sung, rendering its decidedly absurd story closer to the stuff of legend than a slice-of-life. After all, Annie Mary wears her hair like Heidi, with two ropey buns on either side of her head, and the man masquerading as Pavarotti is her father. What's more, she has two gay pals named Hob and Nob, and coaches a pop group attempting to raise money to send her terminally ill friend to Disney World before she dies. It's fitting that these offbeat ingredients seem to belong to a children's book—though she's a 35-year-old grown woman, the childlike Annie Mary is a spitfire with a bad case of arrested development. Dressed in baby blue, pink, or yellow, and wearing shirts emblazoned with little bears and horses, despite her height and ample breasts, she's the picture of adolescent femininity. And somehow she keeps her chin up despite her domineering father and her own lingering sense of disappointment, which together conspire to prevent her from being her own person.
We learn early on that at 15, Annie Mary won top honors at Wales' prestigious Eisteddfod music festival, at which Pavarotti served as competition judge, but that her baker father (Jonathan Pryce), known as “The Voice of the Valley,” forbade her to take up an invitation to study voice in Milan following her mother's death. Traumatized, she lost her ability to sing and her emotional growth came to an abrupt halt. Her father's singing, meanwhile, permeates the town: he sings at church, on his delivery rounds, and in the home they share, where she is compelled to accompany him on piano. With an overblown sense of his own ability, he'll perform at the drop of a hat, but his affection for song seems derived entirely from the adulation of his audience. By contrast, Annie Mary understands the peace and strength that music brings, and if she could only get out from under her father's thumb, she'd be free to be equal parts clumsy kook, banging into doors and falling down stairs, and nightingale, her lovely voice tempered by her gentleness and good intentions. When “The Voice of the Valley” suffers a stroke during a performance, losing both his motor skills and (hurrah!) his voice, Annie Mary gets her chance.
Impetuous and excitable, Annie Mary is, at first glance, a walking disaster. But her considerable pluck, vivid imagination, and true talent enable her to regain the respect of her judgmental community. Sugarman's conception of her heroine recalls the protagonists of early-20th-century girls' fiction, such as Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna, and Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, orphans or disenfranchised adolescents who seek to define themselves within a society that expects little from them, and who earn the love they seek in the process. These characters provided their authors with the means to depict female independence in a socially acceptable manner. With Annie Mary, who transforms herself from discounted nuisance into town heroine, Sugarman has invented a strange and striking new version of this fictional archetype. But where her forerunners found self-realization in marriage, Annie Mary proves to be a sexual live wire and a cloud that can't be pinned down.
What should we make of all this? If Sugarman's heroine sounds like a caricature, Rachel Griffiths' performance elevates her past frivolity, endowing her with tragic humanity and infectious passion. This warm and funny film hits all the right notes, and nothing compares to the satisfaction that comes from watching Annie Mary triumphantly sing her heart out. She's as radiant as you knew she would be all along.