Monday, February 12, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #185 - My Dog Skip (2000, dir. Jay Russell)

The qualities of a great family movie are very different than those required to make a film primarily for adults. Many of the conventions associated with “serious” movies simply don’t apply to a movie meant to appeal equally to children and their parents. Needless to say most films land wide of the mark. My Dog Skip is a movie that speaks clearly in the syntactical language of children, but it lands a mighty emotional wallop to any adult with a beating heart. The thing that My Dog Skip gets so beautifully right is that the sad details of our childhoods can be made right for the rest of our lives by the presence of one true friend. Of course, as many of us know, there is no friend like a dog.

Based on the memoir of acclaimed author Willie Morris, young actor Frankie Muniz (at the same moment he was breaking out as Malcolm In The Middle - 2000) is perfectly cast as Willie, a scrawny, shy, only child in WWII-era Yazoo, Mississippi. His Father (Kevin Bacon) lost his leg in the Spanish-American War and young Willie finds himself without a strong mentor. His next-door neighbor Dink (Luke Wilson) is the local sports hero, whom Willie idolizes, but he too is made unavailable to Willie when drafted. Willie’s insightful Mother (Diane Lane) overrides his Father’s objections and gives Willie a Jack Russell puppy for his ninth birthday. From the moment the dog enters the scene things start looking up for Willie. Problems don’t go away, but having a companion offering unconditional love makes anyone’s load easier to bear. In addition, Willie starts to see that his dog, Skip, helps him navigate many socially and emotionally difficult situations. In one fashion or another, Skip helps Willie deal with bullying, meeting girls, understanding racism, finding empathy for his own and other peoples’ frailties, and even breaking up a gang of bootleggers. The details are dealt with superficially and only somewhat believably, but it is entirely beside the point. Because, as these things happen, the bond between Willie and Skip becomes more and more believable. Towards the end of the movie, Willie loses his temper and hits Skip in front of the whole town and Skip runs away. This pivotal moment forces Willie to recognize exactly what he has in Skip. He muses, “I was an only child and Skip was an only dog.” Any person who has experienced loneliness, or a fractured parental relationship, or confusion about his social station, or the love and then loss of a best friend can relate to Willie’s agony as he frantically rides his bike around town looking for his lost dog. He finds him, but while helping bust up the bootlegging operation, Skip is badly injured. Get the hankies out folks. The movie’s tone becomes more serious at this point. Skip survives and Willie fully realizes what he has, yet a sweet melancholy creeps in as Willie (and the audience) begin to recognize the inevitable. Willie will grow up and go away to college, and Skip will stay behind and eventually disappear.

The things that work in My Dog Skip work so spectacularly well that it falls into the classic category to me. The story is told in a warm voiceover supplied by Harry Connick Jr. which, when combined with the nostalgic view of a lost small town America, swelling music, and honeyed lighting, reminds one of the most heartrending aspects of To Kill A Mockingbird. Casting is fantastic. Skip himself is the perfect screen match of sentience and doggishness, irresistibly guileless and conniving. Some of his human counterparts do alright as well. Kevin Bacon and Diane Lane can add their fine and nuanced performances here to resumes already filled with memorable characters, and Frankie Muniz gives a remarkably sophisticated and complex performance of a little boy - clearly a testament to his and the director Jay Russell’s talents. As the movie winds toward its inevitably poignant conclusion, there is an overwhelming sense of loss in the viewer. Like any successful art, good movies make us yearn for the past or aspire toward the future. My Dog Skip is the former. It will make you pine for your childhood, miss the loving dog that was your best friend, and ultimately, an America that was better, or at least kinder, than the one we have now.

-          Paul Epstein

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