Dogs are plentiful providers of fun and warmth, as well as achievers of weird and funny tricks that amuse their mates to no end. This makes them rich subjects for cinematic potential. A lot of dog movies are adventures about saving the day from a pesky villain or to help a kid with their school troubles. Which is why A Dog Year, an honest, but joyful portrayal of the nuances in dog friendship stands out.
Based on a memoir of the same name, A Dog Year is about Jon Katz, played by Jeff Bridges (who earned an Emmy nomination for this performance), an author going through a midlife crisis after ending up estranged from his wife and daughter and developing a writer’s block. In order to add some spice to his life, he adopts a border collie named Devon, who has his own issues to deal with.
Jeff Bridges plays Katz with a quiet melancholy and in a grounded fashion that makes him easily relatable. The most remarkable aspect of his performance is how it conveys that depression isn’t necessarily a result from tragedy or trauma, but falling in a monotony that deprives life from any sense of excitement for the future. He’s not always sad, just tired of not having anything to look forward to. It’s also worth noting the presence of Domhnall Gleeson as a handyman who assists Katz to find his way around some trivialities of small town life. It’s not a very big role, but Gleeson infuses it with enough charm to make it a highlight.
In terms of craftsmanship, A Dog Year isn’t exactly spectacular or stylish. It’s all directed to create the most mundane and familiar environment you can think of. At least if you have lived in quiet and not very eventful suburban zones like the one portrayed in the film. That simplicity is what makes the story so endearing and easy to watch.
What makes A Dog Year special is that it has a detailed insight when it comes to portraying the process of a dog adapting to a new home. Devon is a lovely companion, but he can also be a bit of a mess. He breaks things, escapes from the house chasing school buses, and gives Katz his fair share of embarrassing moments in front of crowds. The idea is that dogs are amazing, but they imply certain challenges and responsibilities that aren’t always pleasant to go through. Even Katz considers returning Devon to the place where he adopted him, since he’s having a hard time dealing with the pressure.
The reason behind this problem is that Devon has a history of abusive experiences with humans, so naturally, trusting them is going to be tricky. However, it’s that emotional burden what will ultimately lead Katz so discover the root of his own issues and start a journey that will make him and Devon change for the better. The longer Katz gets to know Devon and figure out what makes him tick, the closer he comes to realize that in order to help his dog to calm down, he needs to come to terms with the effects loneliness, lack of motivation and boredom have had in his own mental health. In order to help others, you must be open to help from others. Katz has become so isolated that the idea of accepting help makes him feel exposed and incompetent. He knows he needs it, but is too arrogant to accept it. As the movie moves forward, Katz starts to let other people into his life one moment at a time. And in the process, he paves the way for Devon to feel more safe around his presence.
The script develops its conflict in a calm and assured character-driven fashion that allows the bond between Katz and Devon to fully sink in. There’s not a lot of concern for plot or urgency, and in this case, it’s for the better. After all, it’s all about two characters trying to understand each other rather than the world that surrounds them. And for a subject that can easily fall into mawkish melodrama, the tone direction is quite understated.
If you are, or have ever been a dog companion, it’s easy to appreciate and enjoy the effort and heart that went into making A Dog Year an accurate portrayal of a dog-owner dynamic and the impact it has in our personalities, as well as that of our four-legged friends.