RetroReviews #48: Lawn Dogs (1997)

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JULY 5, 2013 SCREENING: LAWN DOGS (1997)

Lawn Dogs is the greatest movie you’ve never seen.

The only reason I was exposed to this movie was because we had to read the screenplay during a class I took on script comparison in film school. I read the script before I had seen the movie, and fell in love with the idea instantly. The class was polled on the quality of the three scripts we read. Which script was the best? Most of the class chose the far better known Fried Green Tomatoes as the strongest screenplay. Myself and two other students voted for Lawn Dogs. “Why?” our professor inquired. “It’s one of a kind” is all I could offer at the time.

I’ve seen the film itself twice now: once in 2003, and almost exactly 10 years later in 2013. My reaction remained the same. As some other critics have noted, the film was “hauntingly beautiful and moved me even more than the screenplay did. I judge a film’s “greatness” by its ability to raise fascinating questions and emotionally drawn the audience into its world and characters so well that you’re left thinking about the film for weeks after you’ve seen it. Lawn Dogs is such a film on my list, and thus its one of the very rare times that I opt to award a film a perfect four stars.

So what exactly is this film about? Well, on paper, Lawn Dogs is somewhat like the film I most recently reviewed, Dreamchild. It tells the story of a controversial relationship between an adult man and a young girl, which naturally causes problems and has consequences later in the film. But unlike Dreamchild and many other films that approach this touchy subject matter, there’s nothing really bad happening between Trent and Devon’s relationship in this film. The film makes it clear from the onset that the little girl is the one who initiates it. There is absolutely nothing sexual or romantic about it. Lawn Dogs shows us that Trent is obviously not a pedophile – he is involved with adult women, has no interest in the little girl at first, and wants her to just leave him alone and stop pestering him. Eventually, they discover they have more in common than they realized, and they bond in a way that forms an amazing friendship.

Thus, while the two main characters and their “special relationship” would lead us to think this film would be in the same genre as films about pedophilia, the film itself is actually more along the lines of Harold and Maude, Badlands, Lilo & Stitch, or The Professional – all films that present a scenario with two characters that seemingly would never be pals in real life, but the film gives us a believable scenario that turns them into best buddies despite the shock of the outside world. In the case of Lawn Dogs, the controversy isn’t merely from the fact that Trent is a 20-something man hanging out with a 10 year old girl (although that obviously causes major problems in the movie), but there are many underlying themes about class conflict, American culture, broken families, surgical ramifications, and the way modern society looks at taboos and civility.

Lawn Dogs is essentially a drama, although it contains a healthy dose of many other film genres. There’s some great comedic moments, adventure, father-son relationships, and even some crude (but funny) toilet humor. The film is clearly set in the “real world”,  but some fantasy elements creep it at the most unexpected times, and the surprise twist ending is particularly chilling and inspirational at the same time (another film I gave a similar four star rating for producing contradictory emotions at the same time was Let Me In. It managed to be both bleak & depressing and cute & sweet at the same time) To me, that is the true mark of a genius movie. Like its characters and scenario, the film manages to bring out opposite emotions in its audience at the same time. It‘s also a quintessential film about American culture, that ironically was british-made and filmed in the U.K. As the Brits would say, “That’s bloody brilliant!” 

Looking at the reviews of many female critics, it appears they particularly enjoyed Sam Rockwell on screen, claiming he looked his hottest in this movie. Being a straight adult male, I didn’t notice or care about Sam Rockwell’s physical appearance on screen. I focused on the direction, acting, music, and story, all of which were top notch like the screenplay. Rockwell’s performance was great here, and so was then-newcomer Mischa Barton, who went on to star in the O.C. (I’ve noticed most “former child actors” tend to give the greatest performance of their career when they were under 10.) But if the subject matter makes you uncomfortable and the only reason you’d check out the movie is to see how sexy Sam Rockwell looks, be my guest. I’d rather not spoil the ending or even how the film unfolds, so I’ll simply recommend you see this obscure little masterpiece for yourself. It truly is a textbook example of “diamond in the rough”.

**** out of ****

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