For all of its sincerity, "The Year of the Dog" just doesn't know what it is.
As a film critic for whom attending Al-Anon meetings might be therapeutic, I found The Year of the Dog to be confusing. Al-Anon, for those who don’t know, is a support group specifically for family members who are concerned about alcoholic loved ones. I haven’t been to any of these settings myself (not yet) but in my limited understanding of that program and of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) by extension, there’s no finish line to sobriety - it’s a one-day-at-a-time thing.
The Year of the Dog, an independent film about a man trying to reach thirty sober days, does make clear that it’s a one-day-at-a-time system, but it also can’t help itself by moving as per dramatic formula and ending on a “mission accomplished” ending. No, it’s not the President W. Bush of Addiction movies, but it does try too hard at being two different but conflicting kinds of stories.
Its protagonist, a man who is introduced as sleeping on a set of steps out in the cold, has agreed to a thirty-day sobriety goal before hopefully seeing his mother, who is dying in hospice care. He has a kind sponsor who lets him stay in a cabin on his large Montana property, where a stray dog appears. Taking the dog in, the man begins to train both the dog and himself to participate in both a weight-pulling competition and the community at large respectively. The sentimentality is heavy, but the film wears its heart on its sleeve. And that speaks volumes, for sure.
The confusion sets in as the film progresses to its overly and overtly tear-jerking crescendo, which more than suggests that the man isn’t just on a path to a better life, but rather that he has succeeded fully. All apologies, but The Year of the Dog’s arc isn’t one that I would call mature. It’s a juvenile thought to believe that a one-and-done cure for addiction can be found through the spirit of nature or by merely opening your heart to the wind, or something of that ilk. Maybe the movie is trying to suggest that the man - played with pretty real grace and vulnerability by Rob Grabow - has only begun his life-long journey, and is doing so from a good place, but I just don’t see or feel that.
The final scene is a perfect contradiction and exactly makes my main criticism. We see the man, with a woman who was previously a friend and is now a girlfriend, being pulled by a team of sled dogs. This likely represents the life path that he’s still on and in a wonderfully visual manner. However, there is also voice-over narration that implies all he needs he’s already found, and that all’s well ends well. The end.
Again - sorry, but no.
With an awkward soundtrack, real-world performances that appear well-grounded, and a good-intentioned if confused dramatic mindset, The Year of the Dog might make for heart-warming viewing for some but will definitely be frustrating for others - especially those working the twelve steps. Of course, I only have a limited understanding of the program, so I could be wrong.
Could be. 2/5
The Year of the Dog is now available for rent or purchase.
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