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‘Dandelion’ review: KiKi Layne blooms as frustrated singer-songwriter in delicate film

Mark Meszoros – The News-Herald (Willoughby, Ohio) (TNS)

Anyone who has struggled to turn their art — the thing about which they are most passionate — into a career likely will relate to aspects of “Dandelion.”

While the largely charming and effective film’s titular figure is a young Black woman attempting to make it as a singer-songwriter, it is inspired largely by writer-director Nicole Riegel’s experience of trying to make it as a filmmaker.

She is most interested in exploring what it’s like to be the frustrated female artist, Riegel offering in her director’s statement: “I wanted to share how it feels to go through my artistic process in a world that quietly tells me each day that my voice does not matter. In a world and industry of male hero worship: men are mentors. Women, their muses. Men with strong visions are moody auteurs. Women with strong visions are stubborn nightmares. Men pick up guitars and film cameras. Women inspire and are filmed.”

Whereas Riegel is from small Jackson, Ohio, Dandelion (KiKi Layne) lives in Cincinnati, where she earns a few bucks playing three nights a week at a hotel bar. Bringing with her an electric guitar and its acoustic counterpart, she performs originals and covers such as Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” to a small, ever-changing crowd that seemingly couldn’t care less. She attempts to hide how utterly deflating it all is, but her eyes tell the tale.

Her scrolls through social media feeds add to her sadness, as musician peers have gone onto greater levels of success than she has, gathering scores of likes and loves on the daily. Dandelion has had to sacrifice to help care for her mother, Jean (Melanie Nicholls-King), who lives with a pulmonary condition that comes with high expenses.

Dandelion’s breaking point comes when, upon arriving home earlier than expected, she catches Jean smoking. The former hits the road, acoustic guitar in two, for a desperate stab at winning a battle of the bands at a bike week celebration in South Dakota — despite previously telling a bar employee that the contest would be for her only if she wanted to make music about drinking beer in her Silverado.

At the stage, following a well-received act, Dandelion bravely takes the mic but is treated disrespectfully by the largely white, male crowd — it’s bad enough before a man swipes her leather guitar case from the stage and runs off with it. She gives chase but to no avail.

Her apparent white knight, Scottish singer-songwriter Casey (Thomas Doherty) brings her the case before she can flee the scene. He takes an immediate interest in her and, eventually, convinces her to stick around.

She meets his musical pals and makes a little music with them, appearing to see musical possibilities she never had before.

Dandelion and Casey go off on his bike and write together, almost effortlessly turning a song of hers into something stronger as a duet and, sooner than later, giving into their mutual attraction. She is alive in a way we have never seen her — passionately and creatively.

Quickly, though, comes the obligatory bickering, which is subsequently reflected in their songwriting. Seemingly, the full Fleetwood Mac-inization of their dynamic takes only hours.

You’d be forgiven for expecting “Dandelion” to be a music-fueled romance, at the end of the day an update of sorts of 2007’s “Once.” However, the free-and-easy times for Dandelion are few and far between.

More often than not a portrait of pain, the film never feels suffocating, thanks to the assured direction of Riegel that boasts myriad nice touches. (Her 2020 debut, “Holler,” which also featured a young woman as its lead character, was well-received, so what we see here in her sophomore effort isn’t surprising.)

However, perhaps even more credit for “Dandelion” goes to “If Beale Street Could Talk” star Layne, whose credits also include “Native Son” and “The Old Guard.” In her hands, Dandelion is alternately hard-shelled and vulnerable, hateful and loving — a mix of relatable qualities that make her feel very real.

On the other hand, the performance of Doherty (“The Invitation,” “Gossip Girl”) is uneven as the underwritten Casey, who swings a little wildly among dramatically different personality traits. That said, he has chemistry with Layne, which is paramount for the movie to work as well as it does.

It’s difficult to end a film like “Dandelion,” one interested in offering something more genuine than feel-good. Without going into much detail — other than to say the final moments may have you itching to visit Cincinnati’s oh-so-cool-looking Ghost Baby music venue — the climax of “Dandelion” is lovely but also feels unearned.

It stumbles at other times, too, but, in all, this is a film that deserves to be seen — and heard — thanks to all the talented artists involved in making it.



3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for sexuality/nudity and language)

Running time: 1:53

How to watch: In theaters July 12


©2024 The News-Herald (Willoughby, Ohio). Visit The News-Herald (Willoughby, Ohio) at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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