Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 11, 2023 8:57 am 
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JUSTIN MORRICE, ETHAN ENG IN THERAPY DOGS

High school, on the hoof

Therapy Dogs is a raw vérité style film made by two best friends to record their last year at a Toronto suburb high school. They shot constantly during school and got away with it by claiming they were dong something in connection with the yearbook. It has gotten some very good reviews. More than that, Letterboxd shows how passionately some young viewers respond to it. If you're older and not an open-minded film critic? It may not be so easy. When I saw it last year as part of the Slamdance Festival I didn't write about it. It seemed so inchoate, so like a home movie, so abrupt and fragmentary that, despite being partly scripted as well as not, it was hard to see how you could even think of it as a film made for an audience.

But some films you learn how to look at. And everything becomes significant through the response it receives. If total strangers are watching Therapy Dogs on a screen and taking it seriously, we have to take it seriously too. There is no reason to think it is a fraud. Though it's full of wildness, teenage angst and confusion from first to last, it's sincere. It also must be recognized that after all it is composed as a film, with (admittedly goofy and repetitious) inter-titles - I particularly like the neat little accompanying line drawings that come with, a score, and careful, paced editing. And obviously it has a trajectory, readymade: it ends with graduation, or rather with the exhilaration and confusion that follow graduation. Finally, the - perhaps cleverly disguised - sincerity and professionalism of this film is proven by what its director Eng is now doing: working on his second film.

It's anchored by the friendship of Ethan Eng and Justin Morrice, who primarily made the film. It can be seen as about the two guys, and all the school that flows around them. In the course of the film this friendship may evolve dramatically. An interesting aspect of Therapy Dogs is the way it follows an orderly course as a film while following unpredictable, disorderly events the filmmakers themselves are taking part in. It reminds me of Larry Clark (who has been mentioned in a review) making his famous photographic monograph Tulsa while living as a speed freak. He always had his camera. So do these boys. This has been called "Jackass meets 400 Blows," and a running feature are the boys' moments of violence and particularly Justin's constant temptation to throw himself from a moving vehicle or a dangerous height. (He has described himself as "an actor, stuntman, fighter, and punk" - maybe there's a career in there somewhere. )

Toward the latter part a very serious misunderstanding occurs between the two. It seems Ethan means to say how great their friendship is, but sounds to Justin like he's trashing it. Yet Ehtan dosn't seem articulate enough to explain or walk back from what he has said and Justin is left feeling wounded and hurt. This seems to me the emotional core of the film.

We see very little of girls in this film, nor anyone LGBT, nor jocks.

Also important is prom, which is well covered and is far from falling into cliché or convention. Though the standard scenes are there, boys presenting flowers and asking girls to be their dates and the big ballroom and the getting drunk and stoned (of which, by the way, therre is more than you've likely ever seen before in a teen flick), this is a separation of Justin and Ethan too, because Justin seems to have a date, and Ethan appears to go looking for a date uselessly with porn dancers.

It is shot with three or four different kinds of cameras, which provide inevitably an almost self-conscious sense of the chaos and schizophrenia of this kind of teenage experience. I say "this kind," because surely not all school experiences contain this kind of wild behavior, drunken, stoned parties, foolish derring do: some schools are more buttoned-down. Aren't they?

The images aren't very beautiful and the sound often isn't clear. The sequences are generally short: they reflect the fleeting speed with which senior year- even when it's boring and "nothing is happening" - goes by, and the rapidity of young responses and reaction speeds. It thus captures "teen spirit." So after all this was the right way to capture the true nature of high school, which is what Ethan and Justin sought to do. They found a new cinematic language, right at hand.

Therapy Dogs, 83 mins., debuted at Slamdance, Park City, Utah, Jan. 2022; also shown at San Diego Asian, Toronto Reel Asian, Glasgow and Faenza. Executive produced by Matthew Miller and Matt Johnson (The Dirties). Released by Utopia Films March 10, 2023, it is a New York Times Critics Pick. Metascore: 84% (based on only four reviews).

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