In his directorial debut, screenwriter Mike White delivers a film as winningly idiosyncratic and nonjudgmental as a beloved pet. Year of the Dog is a rare feat, really: a movie about true companionship, the real, uncomplicated grace that people share with animals and, less frequently, with people.
It’s not a banal tale about a boy and his dog, but a fresh one about an older woman and hers. This turns out to be a plum role for Molly Shannon, who early on forecasts the movie’s entire course in her suggestive face: Witness that brightly toothy grin becoming a sort of manic, open-mouthed grimace.
A lean, 40-something single woman whose coltish vitality evidently is on the wane, Shannon’s Peggy stands at spinsterhood’s trailhead. Ever the patient functionary, she works her admin job with commendable aplomb. Duties include regular service as the doughnut point person for her bland corporate feed lot—err, office—and as sounding board for her promotion-grubbing boss (Josh Pais) and man-crazy co-worker (Regina King), both nice enough but just a smidge self-involved and not the greatest of listeners.
Outside of work, Peggy endures a halting and inevitably doomed date with her hunter-bumpkin neighbor (John C. Reilly), and faint, unhelpful pity from a sister-in-law (Laura Dern) who steers every conversation into a platform for her own vacuously overprotective parenting. If Peggy seems a little awkward, socially, it’s important to consider what social adjustment really would look like and be worth in her world, where everybody’s a bit of a kook, absorbed in some fixation.
Peggy’s is Pencil, her beagle. Thank goodness for the adorable and selfless and mild-mannered Pencil, on whom, understandably enough, Peggy dotes. It’s obvious right away that if ever she lost him, she’d lose herself.
And then she does. Oh yes, also important: This is a movie entirely unafraid of breaking your heart. What’s great is that White isn’t at all overbearing about it, bless his soul—but that doesn’t mean he tiptoes around Peggy’s deep grief. Actually, he’s the good listener she deserves. But of course she’s on her own here.
Bereft and numb, Peggy falls under the spell of a curiously sexless SPCA volunteer, played by Peter Sarsgaard in a literally exquisite performance. Weird and delicate and totally fearless, it’s one of those marvelous turns that seems wholly unprecedented in movies but savorably true to life. He’s empathic almost to the point of repulsiveness, and, for Peggy, galvanizing.
“Yep, vegan,” she’s soon explaining to the now even more pitying sister-in-law. “It’s nice to have a word that can describe you. I’ve never had that before.” The film fully allows Peggy this discovery, which is gracious, but also reveals how corrupting it can be, which is bracing. She goes on a bit of a rampage. It begins with the misappropriation of company checks to animal sanctuaries, works up to the ruination of fur coats and continues apace from there.
You know a movie is humane when the main character becoming a petulant nutjob somehow only moves you even more deeply. This is not the italicized-and-underlined satire of rotting suburban normalcy that you see coming for miles and already have seen a zillion times anyway (thanks so much, American Beauty). Instead, it’s a braver and more accurate reflection of how we live now—less like people in movies than we’d hoped to be, more apart from each other than we care to admit. It’s a life in which real emotional allies prove disappointingly scarce, and escapism only seems to compound our baggage.
In White’s scheme, Peggy’s descent into dog-lady chaos (yes, one simple trip to the pound becomes a compulsive rescue operation) doesn’t demean her; it helps us recognize a marvelously compassionate way of getting to know a movie’s characters by learning how they hurt. White treats the raising of consciousness as what it is: a potentially herniating kind of heavy lifting, always fraught with grief for what gets sloughed in the process.
Year of the Dog begins too safely, guarding its tone with the gently distancing focal lengths and symmetrical compositions still in vogue among indie-movie misfit-ists, and ends, having painted itself into a corner, perhaps too tidily. What matters most, though, is how it honors the direct expression of feeling that animals allow from us when we don’t allow it from each other—an expression without which, paradoxically enough, we become real beasts.