It’s Easter weekend and today I’m highlighting an independent film that speaks about hope and redemption. The Year of the Dog tells a story of two strays who somehow find their way to each other and transform both their lives. The opening scene shows Matt, a loner alcoholic who’s hit rock bottom. Flashbacks show Matt as a young boy with his dad which hints at the source of his past trauma that caused his alcoholism. He gets a letter from his dying mother whose dying wish is to see him stay sober for 30 days.
Fred, his AA sponsor, offers a place of refuge for him on his Montana farm but Matt is really having a hard time with his withdrawal symptoms until one day he finds a stray Husky and they bond almost instantly. Despite Fred’s initial protests, Matt insists on keeping the dog. He asks Fred what to name him who replies ‘You found him, you pick!’ I didn’t think much of it until later I found out Matt has named his new Husky Yu’pik, ha!
The film speaks of the importance of connection, and Yu’pik’s companionship slowly helps Matt on his journey to sobriety. The bond between a man and his new canine best friend is just lovely to watch and guaranteed to thaw even the coldest hearts, especially dog lovers. Training the dog gives Matt a sense of purpose and also opens him up to meeting new friends.
Filmed in Montana, the movie offers an escapism factor with its stunning vast landscape, captured beautifully by DP George Potter. I’m already sick of the snow after a long Winter in Minnesota but I still appreciate the Montana wintry scenery as a lot of the scenes are filmed outdoors. I’m a huge fan of Huskies, one of the most beautiful dog breeds with mesmerizing beauty.
This movie introduces me to a dog sport I never knew existed–a weight-pulling competition, where dogs pull a cart or sled loaded with weight a short distance across dirt/gravel, grass, or in this case, snow. Dogs of all sizes can compete but the race organizer sneers at Yup’ik’s size, which is a fraction of the size of the dog champion. I was quite worried for Yup’ik initially as the weight goes as high as 2500 pounds! Let’s just say the weight-pulling storyline gives a whole new meaning to the word underdog! Of course, the weight-pulling race is an obvious metaphor for Matt pulling through and stepping forward to overcoming his addiction.
Rob Grabow does multiple duties as a writer, actor, and co-director and he does an admirable job in all 3. As an actor, he has an effortlessly affable vibe but is also convincing when Matt is at his worst. The cast is small but each has their own story and is given a chance to shine. The tentative friendship between Matt who is Caucasian and Fred (Michael Spears) who is Native American feels natural. The fact that they came from very different backgrounds is explored well here, such as when Fred enlightens Matt about how he finds Atlanta Braves, Matt’s fave baseball team, problematic to Native Americans. It doesn’t feel preachy as he simply tells him how their use of Tomahawk Chop as a mascot negatively affects him and his people.
Indigenous actor Jon Proudstar (who can be seen in Hulu’s acclaimed series Reservation Dogs) and Alyssa Groenig are pretty memorable in their brief scenes as Greg and Julie, respectively. Greg helps instill wisdom and confidence in Matt while Julie offers him a chance at romantic love. I have to say that my favorite scenes are always whenever Yu’pik is on screen but to be fair, anytime filmmakers place a cute animal in a movie it almost always steals every scene!
Now, the script is not perfect, the plot is predictable and some conversations feel rather corny, but it does bring out a compelling human story of hope and perseverance that’s genuinely moving. The addiction aspect is handled in a sensitive manner. It gives us a glimpse of the struggle an addict goes through that doesn’t feel exploitative or over the top.
Overall I really enjoy The Year of the Dog and the significance of the title is revealed in the end in an amusing way. I certainly count this as one of the most memorable dog movies, one that’s as heartwarming as it is uplifting.
This movie is currently playing at select theaters in the US and is available to rent on Digital Platforms. If you’re looking for a good alternative to watch this holiday weekend and beyond, this one should be well worth your time.
7 thoughts on “Indie Film Review: The Year Of The Dog (2023) – a story about pulling through that’s as heartwarming as it is uplifting”
I might check this out if it’s playing on a streaming service for free.
It’s a good one, Steven! If you’re a dog lover, you’ll enjoy it even more.
I’ve never heard of this movie, sounds interesting though.
Give it a watch and support indie film! 🙂
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