NBC has billed this holiday special as the “true story” behind “Coat of Many Colors,” the country hit Dolly Parton wrote about the jacket her mother stitched together for her from a basket of rags. Though, as any true Parton fan knows, trying to fact-check her life story is like searching for the cherry tree that George Washington chopped down.
Being openly, playfully self-aggrandizing is a big part of Parton’s charm. So it makes sense that, halfway through Coat of Many Colors, a pink-cheeked, 9-year-old Dolly (Alyvia Alyn Lind) stands before her classroom, reading an apocryphal essay about her favorite famous person, “Miss Dolly Parton, rising star of the Grand Ole Opry,” whom (she insists) was born singing in the key of E. By that point, you’d believe anything this charismatic little troublemaker told you. If she claimed the titular patchwork coat was hand-stitched by a wild turkey that waddled down from the Smoky Mountains, you’d probably just smile and say, “Mmmmmm-hmmmm, darlin’. And what happened next?”
Coat of Many Colors isn’t really a biopic anyway. It has all the hallmarks of a generic Nicholas Sparks movie. There’s a beautiful, old-timey country setting: a farmhouse in Locust Ridge, Tennessee, in 1955. There are lovers from two different worlds — Dolly’s devout Christian mother (Jennifer Nettles) and her heathen father (Ricky Schroder) — who end up kissing in the pouring rain while he holds her face in his hands. There’s a grumpy old man (Gerald McRaney, playing Dolly’s preacher grandfather) and a terrible tragedy that I won’t spoil here. There’s an emotional scene filmed in slow motion, and an uplifting message about enduring faith. There’s also a ton of hillbilly cliches. The Parton family’s house is partly wallpapered in newspaper, and Dolly and her friends are always carrying slingshots, wearing overalls, or shouting “daggum it!” But to parphrase something Parton once said about herself: It may look fake, but it’s real where it counts.
What counts most is the acting, which lends the story a naturalism that the script can’t. Nettles captures the quiet, solitary sadness of Dolly’s mother with great subtlety, and it’s a pleasure to hear the Sugarland singer’s beautiful voice as she hums in her chair while stitching Dolly’s coat or serenades the whole family with “Poor Folks Town” as Dolly’s five billion brothers and sisters pile onto their mama’s bed. But the real breakout star is 8-year-old Lind (The Young and the Restless), who delivers a performance so believable, you can imagine looking it up on YouTube 10 years from now, when she’s inevitably winning awards for some gritty Sundance drama.
With her giant blue eyes and wispy blonde curls, Lind looks like an innocent Kewpie doll, which only makes it funnier when she acts like a holy terror. One early scene finds her spitting into a cheap palette of watercolors, literally painting garish colors on her eyelids and cheeks, and marching into the church during her grandfather’s sermon, looking like “a hootchie cootchie girl,” as her mother later puts it. Strumming her guitar and singing at the top of her lungs, she caps off the performance by throwing her arms into the air like a Toddlers and Tiaras pageant queen. “Dolly Parton! Aren’t you at all interested in goin’ to heaven?” her grandfather asks her. “Why sure I am, grandpa!” she says, batting her eyelashes. “But do I have to look like hell to get there?”
That’s just one of many Dolly-isms that makes its way into the script, ready-made for some Etsy vendor to cross-stitch it onto a throw pillow. And Lind delivers them all with the perfect mix of sweetness and sassiness. “I’d rather be plain ugly than just plain,” she insists earnestly, while praying. “Then again, I’d rather be dead than ugly.” Lind also shows incredible range for an 8-year-old. Her strongest scene finds her standing in the field, crying and yelling at God for the misfortune that he’s caused her family. “You’re the bully!” she yells. “That’s what you are!” It’s a childlike rant, but there’s nothing adorable about her rage. It looks and sounds real.
That scene also offers a decent excuse for this special to preach about forgiveness, in the spirit of the holidays. If there’s a message buried in there somewhere, it’s that whether you’re talking about family or a higher power, love and mercy conquer all. (There’s a reason why Dolly’s “coat of many colors” echoes the story of Joseph’s multi-colored coat in the Bible.) Non-believers might roll their eyes at the didactic climax, which takes place in a church, but it’s hard not to be just a tiny bit moved by the love by the way mother and a daughter develop a new understanding of each other by the end. Parton’s story might be pure hokum. But daggum it, some of that hokum ain’t bad.