SLAMDANCE: Therapy Dogs (2022)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: G.G. Graham is a cult film cryptid, horror hag, and exploitation film explorer of the dusty and disreputable corners of cinema history. The street preacher of Z-grade cinema can be found at Midnight Movie Monster, as well as writing for various genre sites and print publications, or on Twitter and Instagram @msmidnightmovie. Visit her Blog at www.midnightmoviemonster.com and Twitter @msmidnightmovie.

Most coming of age rituals are more arbitrary than not. The end of your school years or your 18th birthday are important milestones, sure, but it isn’t like either one magically confers any deeper insight about what the rest of your life might look like. There’s no easy path to whatever comes next, but suddenly everyone around you expects you to have more answers than questions, and not everyone has a solid support system to guide them along. If anything, it just adds more stress and uncertainty to an already uncomfortably liminal time, a pile of awkward questions to avoid from every adult in your life.

Therapy Dogs‘ Justin (co-screenwriter Justin Morrice) physically tosses himself of his mother’s car when she starts in on that line of questioning. He’s not ready to give up having fun with his friends, or his long brewing movie project with best friend Ethan (co-writer/director Ethan Eng). In the guise of a yearbook project, they’ve been making a guerrilla film to tell “the truth” about their last year of school at Cawthra Park Secondary school, in the suburbs of Toronto.

Morrice and Eng started the project that became Therapy Dogs in 2017, when they were just 16. Shooting without cooperation from school officials, they assembled the film’s cast out of friends from their 2019 graduating class. The bulk of the film’s footage was shot on the sly using a mix of cell phones, Go Pros and lower grade professional equipment. The resulting movie’s rawness is one of its biggest strengths, documentary style footage and scripted segments woven together in a way that feels more immediate than the traditional narrative structure of a standard documentary ever could.

The film is a freewheeling sprint of free association, snapshots of various bits of teenage life whipstiched together with occasional text inserts and colorful title cards that resemble memes and notebook doodles. The subject swerves are often accompanied by the thump of the excellently curated pop playlist that serves as the soundtrack. Freed from the usual coming of age narrative arcs, what emerges is a messy portrait of how much of the supposed “best years of your life” are a hurry up and wait situation, be it for the end of the school day or for something different to happen. 

Justin, Ethan, and their friends unapologetically act out suburban teenage angst in its most poorly thought through forms. Be it doing donuts in a parking lot with Justin strapped to the hood of the car or our pair of protagonists jumping off a railroad crossing into a lake, Therapy Dogs is an object lesson in how suburban comfort often comes at the cost of emotional resilience, boredom leading to recklessness. In an environment where everything has been built to encourage a certain comfortable cruise control, it seems less ridiculous to fist fight your best friend just to feel something. This culminates in a messy blow up between Ethan and Justin, that is reconciled as quietly as the original conflict was explosive.

While Therapy Dogs has the ring of emotional truth to every frame, its manic energy and lack of structure does sag through the second act, feeling more like an aggregated social media feed than a film. A sequence taking place in a strip club adds some much needed black comedy to a pile of over wrought prom proposals and the three part saga of acquaintance Kevin’s (Kevin Tseng) attempts to find himself by disappearing into drama club theater productions. Right when the film is about to tilt into self indulgence, it makes a play for deeper, less performative emotional territory. The film and its characters handle a worst case scenario with a quiet empathy rarely seen in teen focused cinema. While it happens later in the film that it likely should have, the shift in gears gives Therapy Dogs a surprisingly affecting dose of heart and heft. 

Out of the premiers at this year’s Slamdance film festival, Therapy Dogs was one of the standouts, alongside Avalon Fast’s Honeycomb. Both are microbudget feature debuts from young filmmakers bursting at the seams with potential, and they pair well as opposite reactions to the uncertainty of the passage from childhood to adult. While Honeycomb‘s girl gang finds the refuge of isolation a dangerous illusion that collapses under its own weight, the protagonists of Therapy Dogs find the safe harbor of their insular friend group torn apart by the force of the external pressures. 

While technically and structurally raw edged, both films capture something truthful and immediate about adolescence, the gift of young creatives documenting their experiences in something approximating real time. Hindsight softens the sharp edges of growing up into cozy nostalgia, or crystallizes youthful recklessness into a sharply nihilistic scalpel rather than a clumsy cudgel. As the best bits of Therapy Dogs illustrate, the immediate experience of coming of age lies along a much less linear path. Adulthood isn’t marked in a birthday, or a graduation, or a career path. Growing up’s largest and most difficult to swallow revelation is finding out there are no easy certainties or absolutes. No one has it all figured out, and we’re all largely doing our best to make it up as we go along.

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