Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It's nice having a word that describes you.

The protagonists of Mike White's screenplays are outsiders, people who feel too deeply and in socially awkward ways. They may be awkward, even creepy, but White excels at making us care for and even relate to characters we would try to avoid in real life. Peggy (Molly Shannon), the heroine of White's directorial debut Year of the Dog, is no exception. From the opening shots of Peggy smiling adoringly at her beloved beagle, Pencil, it's clear that Peggy really, really loves dogs. But while White mines his protagonist's earnestness for many laughs, it soon becomes clear that we're not meant to laugh at Peggy; rather, her strange journey of grief and self-discovery inspires genuine empathy.

A mousy office worker living a routine life, Peggy's solitary peace is shattered one morning when Pencil suddenly dies from an apparent poisoning. Her only friend Layla (Regina King) and sister-in-law (Laura Dern) try to comfort her, but it's clear that Peggy's sorrow is unusually deep. After an uncomfortable date with her neighbor Al (John C. Reilly) - who may be responsible for Pencil's death - Peggy is given hope by boyish ASPCA volunteer Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), who inspires her to animal activism and offers the possibility of lasting companionship. But rather than having the story progress towards an easy ending, White acknowledges the complicated nature of Peggy's empathy for animals, which inspires her even as it alienates everyone around her. An animal lover himself, White celebrates Peggy's newfound calling without sidestepping her genuinely off-putting moments; more broadly, Year of the Dog is about the sublime moment of discovering one's purpose, regardless of what others think.

By the end of the film, Peggy has reached a genuine epiphany, or perhaps flipped her lid, or both - White leaves this for us to decide. And it is quite possible to read Peggy's actions as pure self-delusion; at the same time, all of the characters in Year of the Dog are driven by a specific fixation, whether it's marriage or parenthood or hunting (Sarsgaard's fellow animal lover is the sanest character we meet). The difference is that Peggy's concerns fall outside of the realm of what is considered "normal," and no matter how strange her actions become, their unease at her transformation is just as baffling. I knew a guy who hated PETA and "bleeding heart" activism in general, and while I find PETA's actions often silly as well, I could never understand how just talking about the fact that some people oppose eating meat would make him completely, irrationally furious.* I thought of him when Peggy exclaimed, quite rightly, "What is the big deal about ham sandwiches?" White doesn't ask us to share Peggy's convictions, just to acknowledge her humanity; like many great writers, White's sensitivity is his strongest asset.

Unfortunately, the director does let the screenwriter down - his sense of visual composition is serviceable but uninspired, forcing the quirkier aspects of the story in a manner that nearly suffocates the story. There are moments when White hints at taking the story into even darker places, then backs away; hopefully, this does not signal a loss of nerve. The film is also too short at 97 minutes, as we never really get to know the supporting characters. Luckily, the talented cast fills in many of the narrative gaps - Dern's overprotective mom describing Babe as "intense," and Sarsgaard's uneasy response to Shannon's advances tells us everything we need to know about their characters. And Shannon is wonderful as Peggy, taking the character through some difficult transitions, from despair to confusion to mania to peace. By the film's end, we can't say for sure whether Peggy is crazy or enlightened; either way, Shannon has created a character so complex and painfully identifiable that you can't help but cheer for her.

*Then again, this same guy also responded to the news of our pregnancy with "Abort it." It wasn't a joke. Warmth isn't his strong suit.

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