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April 13, 2007

Mike White's Dog Days

The bard of outcast chic on Shannon, sympathy and his directorial debut, Year of the Dog

Molly Shannon and the beloved beagle Pencil in Mike White's Year of the Dog (Photo: Paramount Vantage)

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Spoilers ahead)

For the most part, the oeuvre of screenwriter Mike White is one of contemporary cinema's few niches where alienation can believably exist as an idyll -- a comfort zone without irony or qualification, perhaps even glamorous (School of Rock), noble (Orange County) or cathartic (Freaks and Geeks). Isolation evokes crueler sympathies in Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl, nightmarish tableaus of doomed love in which hearts race with compulsion and neglect, making outcast threats out of literally hopeless romantics.

White's directorial debut, Year of the Dog (opening today in New York), spends most of its 97 minutes at the crossroads of such obsession and pathology -- those dynamics' unresolved positions in the mind of Peggy (Molly Shannon), a single 30-something secretary whose life implodes following the death of her beloved beagle Pencil. Implacably distant from family and colleagues more attuned to their children, lovers or jobs, Peggy befriends Newt, (Peter Sarsgaard), a dog-loving, vegan veterinary assistant who persuades her to adopt a surlier pound animal. Newt pledges a positive training experience for the pooch (named Valentine, natch) but deflects Peggy's personal advances, tactics that ultimately reveal the more aggressive animal natures of each.

It's not an especially new conceit for White (or anybody, for that matter), though his deadpan confers an intriguing ambiguity as Peggy either progresses or regresses (pick one) into reactionary, mass-adopting animal-rights activism. "To me, I always like to create characters and have a tone that kind of plays with the audience's expectations, and maybe plays with their sympathies a little bit," White told The Reeler in an interview earlier this week. "One minute your'e really feeling her, and the next minute, you're like, 'Oh no -- what's she going to do?' And having that sort of push and pull. I think what Molly's so good at is that ... with some actresses it's not fun to watch them unravel. But with Molly, because there's just something funny about her? When she's in the grocery store putting all the cans in the cart? Certain actress, you'd be like, 'Oh, God.' I still think it can be slightly pleasurable to watch Molly in those circumstances."

Certainly Shannon isn't gorging on Annette Bening or Jessica Lange levels of scenery, and despite the white heat of her meltdown (vandalism of sister in law's furs, stealing from employer, attempted murder of neighbor whose pesticide stash killed her dog), Peggy is never depicted as lost. She's just a loner stalled in the denial phase of mourning her best friend, removed from real life (she adopts chickens as Christmas gifts for her young niece and infant nephew) and thrust so far beyond the preening self-interest of those around her that the ordeal humanizes even them. "What were you thinking?" defers to "We'll get you help."

Thus follows the most fascinating element of Year of the Dog -- and forgive the spoiler: Peggy can't stop. Therapy, restitution and love concede to nature as she boards a PETA bus en route to a protest, the first of many promised in a goodbye-cruel-world denouement that White said he perceives as a happy ending. And maybe it is, though Shannon acknowledged the complexities reflected in Peggy's decision.

"I don’t think that everybody's cut out for adult interpersonal relationships," she said. "I think she's going forward. It's open to interpretation, because some people might look at it and say, 'Well, is she sane?' Personally, I see it as she had to go through some very difficult things and find her way -- find out what's important to her in this kind of messy, roundabout way. But I think that she's on to moving on in her life and finding out what her passion is."

White alluded to the bigger-picture implications. "To me, if the animal activists come after me and others think it's propaganda for animal activism, then I'm doing the right thing," he said. "It should walk the line where you feel like it could be either. Generally, it feels like most people feel like that: It's part of her story, but it's not necessarily a message movie in that way. The message, if anything, is to be more understanding of other people's enthusiasms in a sense, and I feel like it happens to be that this is hers. It's something I relate to; I take it seriously."

In this regard, White has it both ways with Year of the Dog -- or maybe he's just getting soft. Child-obsessed siblings (led by a continually excellent Laura Dern), marriage-craving coworkers and cold-blooded bosses are social animals as deserving of humane treatment as any of the dogs in the film, and White penultimately positions them as Peggy's devoted support network. But their own isolation in the end -- and Peggy's choice to leave everything behind, to embrace White's alienation idyll -- rewards nobody, including Peggy. White should direct more of his own scripts; the film is good, and Shannon's work is the best of many strong performances. But as the bus rattles down the highway and Peggy self-discovers herself deep into the margins, you can't help but hope she makes a U-turn at those crossroads, possibly the most depriving place White has ever gone.



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