Making the Grades
Most films have an agenda, a statement the filmmaker wants to drive home to audiences. But if there is one in Year of the Dog, it isn't easy to put a paw on. The movie doesn't appear to be aimed exclusively at either side of the animal activist argument. Rather, this quirky script unleashes a wildly exaggerated pack of characters that run rampant across the screen, colliding with each other but rarely connecting.
Peggy (Molly Shannon) is a 40-something single secretary who dresses older than her years and finds social interactions difficult. Living alone, she coddles her pup, Pencil, buying him toys, taking him for walks and lining her cubicle with his picture. When the dog unexpectedly dies, Peggy is devastated.
Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) is an assistant at the vet clinic where Peggy took Pencil. One day, he calls the mourning pet owner to tell her about an abandoned pooch that needs adopting. After offering to help her train the rowdy German shepherd, the two animal lovers discover they have similar interests in protecting and preserving living things.
Al (John C. Reilly), on the other hand, is Peggy's next-door neighbor. He loves to spend his weekends out in the woods with a rifle and displays his sporting successes (i.e. mounted deer heads and other treasures) on the walls of his home along with his large collection of hunting knives.
At work, Peggy interacts with equally interesting people -- a self-important boss (Josh Pais) suffering from office politics "victimitis" and a cleavage-baring colleague (Regina King) trying to corral her boyfriend (Dale Godboldo) into marriage. Even Peggy's brother (Thomas McCarthy) and his super-sensitive, overprotective, control freak wife (Laura Dern) have issues.
It's this mix of overstated, but nonetheless plausible, individuals that makes Year of the Dog a kind of Napoleon Dynamite for adults. While the characters come dangerously close at times to going over the edge (or beyond) of reasonableness, they also have their moments of lucidity, when their perspectives seem perfectly normal and sane. As well, their opposing viewpoints on touchy subjects such as animal rights, child rearing and risk-taking make them interesting foils for one another, especially from a film study point of view.
While children or teens will likely find little to relate to, the obscure opinion of the screenplay will allow adults to connect with whichever position they agree with. The deaths of several dogs, sexual discussions, infrequent offensive comments and the attempted murder of one character may also be reasons to leave the kids at home.
Yet for adults interested in character studies and satirical humor, this oddball picture may be just the kind of dog show you'll prize.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Year of the Dog.
Peggy turns to pets because people disappoint her. Who reaches out to Peggy? What kind of support does she receive from others? Why do you think she isn’t able to see it?
How does your perspective on animals affect the way you view of this film? What do you think the script saying about animal rights? Can those attitudes be taken to the extreme? What are the positives and negatives of animal testing?
Each of these characters has his or her own agenda or hobbyhorse. What are they? How are their obsessions portrayed? Can an interest be taken too far?