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In a Mississauga high school just outside of Toronto, two best friends, Ethan (Ethan Eng) and Justin (Justin Morrice), are in their final year of high school. Both subjects and filmmakers, they set out to make the ultimate senior film putting themselves and their classmates in the spotlight. Made with guerilla filmmaking techniques, the filmmakers had unprecedented access to the school and students under the guise of making a senior film, and the result, "Therapy Dogs," is a sweet, chaotic, and inventive DIY movie about young people searching for authenticity. Part documentary and part fiction, the movie subverts both aesthetic and narrative clichés in its portrayal of male friendship and late adolescence.
While arranged (mostly) chronologically, "Therapy Dogs" adopts a somewhat non-linear structure. Shifting between reality and fiction, guided by intuition, the movie drives itself through emotional and aesthetic connections. It lays out a few themes; male friendship, the transition from childhood into adulthood, and grief. From exuberant to mournful, "Therapy Dogs" is composed of mini-short films made by various students, including a "found footage" document from 2007 and more documentary footage it feels guided by the ebbs and flows of the final school year. Using a variety of cameras ranging from cell phones, GoPros, and other hand-held cameras to a more professional URSA Mini Pro, the diversity in shooting devices only contributes to the film's sense of play and emotional range.
Many of the film scenes in the film illustrate the intensity of male adolescence, which treads its feet into the muddy water of violence. Our two male protagonists take turns punching lockers to see if they can dent them with their fists. Bare-chested in a parking lot, they simulate (while throwing real blows) a cage fight as they bounce off the green walls of a cart shelter. In one sequence, a young man dressed in a yellow Wolverine costume runs through the hallways of the school, overflowing with pleasure and simulated rage.
Yet, the film's most violent sequence contains very little violence. In the aftermath of the parking lot cage fight, the two men talk about life. They've exchanged shirts as an act of brotherly love, and a camera arranged on the ground captures a discussion about friendship. As Ethan tries to explain his feelings about his friendship with Justin, saying, "If I don't even see you after tonight, I won't care," he grapples with finding the words that describe the intensity of his emotions. Justin, unfortunately, misunderstands Ethan's gesture and ends the scene by kicking the camera across the pavement. After this moment, the film's tone and momentum shifts as the boys drift apart.
In the search to paint the final era of adolescence, the movie finds innovative ways of working around constraints. Using a fake ID, Ethan goes to a strip club to ask a stripper to go with him to prom. Obviously unable to bring a camera into that environment, the movie instead uses the recordings of his conversations with women who tease and offer him advice overlayed against distorted footage from the video game "Grand Theft Auto V." The sequence, like most of the film, errs on sweetness rather than provocation. Compared to some of the titanic films of teen adolescence in the ilk of Larry Clark's "Kids," even at its most down and dirty, "Therapy Dogs" never feels exploitative or grimy. Emotional sensitivity and proximity to the subject inspire warmth rather than distance in the viewer.
It feels dismissive to call "Therapy Dogs" a minor film, though, in this case, it's an appropriate moniker. It's a movie made by minors with the support of rising Canadian stars Matthew Miller and Matt Johnson ("The Dirties" and the upcoming "Blackberry"), who are listed as Executive Producers. Its guerilla-style production matches a vibrant montage style that elevates skater and senior video footage into something cohesive and meaningful for a more general audience. Now just 20 years old, director Ethan Eng has much promise. With "Therapy Dogs," he creates a film similar to Richard Linklater's "Slacker," as it captures the people and the tone of a particular time and place with a unique and heartfelt vision.
Now playing in theaters.
Justin Morrice as Justin
Ethan Eng as Ethan
Kevin Tseng as Kevin
Kyle Peacock as Kyle
Mitchell Cidade as Mitchell
Sebastian Neme as Sebastian
Andrew Michalko as Andrew
Jayden Frost as Jayden