Dog people. When I think of dog people, I think of my friend, Lloyd. He’s got this puppy, Andy. Andy’s got his own personal walker, play dates on weekends and some pieces of his wardrobe are more stylish than mine. Despite being the dog that has everything, the most important thing he has is Lloyd. If you spend any time with this twosome, it’s hard to tell who loves who more. Some people say that owning a dog is selfish, that having another living being depend on you and give you nothing but love in return only serves the owner’s ego. I guess these people forgot about the natural human need to nurture. I suppose these people also have not had the chance to see Mike White’s “Year of the Dog”. White, writer of indie faves “Chuck and Buck” and “The Good Girl”, makes his directorial debut with the simple tale of one woman, whose tightly wound life of disappointment unravels after the death of her dog, a beautiful beagle named Pencil.
Before Pencil’s unexpected passing, Peggy (Molly Shannon) spent her days with a permanent smile on her face. Whether she was at the office comforting her boss (Josh Pais) while his neuroses got stuck in spin over office politics, or at the mall listening to her colleague (Regina King) yammer on about her boyfriend’s commitment issues or even walking on eggshells while visiting her brother and his overprotective wife (Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern), Peggy never frowned. Sure, she never found her dream job or got married or had any kids of her own. But why should she let that bother her? She has her health, a home and Pencil. Finding herself without Pencil though finds Peggy feeling lost. The beauty of White’s script is that Peggy is not suddenly lost but only suddenly realizing that she has been for years. Anchoring this decent into the depth of an internal fear that has been avoided for years is Shannon. As Peggy, she never fully abandons her comedic luminescence but shows new sides of her range, including fragility, determination and sparks of buried hope. She sits one night in a passenger seat at the end of a date. Her suitor (John C. Reilly) asks without tact if she has ever been married. The woman who answers no longer has the strength or the desire to pretend anymore. She simply stutters through an evasive response and stumbles as she exits the car.
Pencil’s death leads to her meeting Newt (Peter Saarsgard), a dog trainer that coaches her how to tame her newly adopted dog, Valentine, while unknowingly waking a part of her heart thought long to be dead. Meeting people is easy. Getting to know people is tricky. Navigating a relationship through the hope and apprehension that comes after years of potentially difficult experiences can be more than enough to make you run home to your dog. For Newt and Peggy, neither has had much success with other human beings. Other human beings are complicated and come with their own set of expectations. Animals on the other hand, want very clear things from you, like food and attention, and, in return, give you unqualified love and admiration. You don’t have to think about what to say to a dog when there is an awkward silence. There is no experience to be had with a dog that mirrors the dance between two people who are trying to figure out whether this is or isn’t the right time to kiss the other person. And while all of this can be infuriating, it should not be forgotten that this is an excitement that cannot be had with a dog.
White’s script works because he does not categorize the characters but rather allows them to grow into themselves, no matter whether that self fits into society’s mold or not. As a film however, “Year of the Dog”, is occasionally just as awkward as its characters. White’s direction and cinematic approach are often static and flat, ultimately taking away from the warmth of the whole. Thankfully, Peggy’s late life journey towards embracing her true self is so winningly portrayed by Shannon that the film’s cinematic limitations never go from flaw to fault. By the time she realizes that her own compartmentalized cubicle life bares its own resemblance to the life of a dog in a pound, she sees that it is also just as wrong for her as for the dogs. After all, dog people are people too and if there’s anyone out there who should give you unconditional love, it’s yourself.
Review by Joseph Bélanger