Lawn Dogs (1997)
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Both of them display their non-conformist behavior early on. She climbs out her bedroom window to her roof, takes off her nightgown and watches it magically float away into the night sky. He stops on his way home from work on a one-lane bridge, blocking the traffic, and proceeds to disrobe and take a leap into the river below. Devon gets interested in him, especially after she witnesses his blatant and subtle humiliation at a neighborhood cookout, where he's come to get paid for some work. She more or less stalks him at his mobile home, even spying on him making love to one of the community's young women, a girl who will barely acknowledge him otherwise. Trent tries to shoo Devon away at first, but he can't help but be flattered by the young girl's interest.
Of course the potential for misunderstanding in this kind of relationship is great and it inevitably happens. I feared that the movie was about to fly apart after Devon's father and some others confronted Trent, but the fantastic ending (fantastic in the sense of fantasy) made me smile. If you are looking for something different, this movie definitely qualifies.
The first thing that will knock you out is Sam Rockwell. Over the last few years he has risen in fame due to high-profile parts in Charlie's Angels, The Green Mile and Mamet's Heist, but here is the arrival of a veritable acting talent. His is a simple, truthful unshowy performance that resonates throughout the film without crushing it. He is the film's heart, rather than a scene-stealer. As we learn more about his poor, white-trash lawn cutter, we sympathise and begin to realise how easily the reactions of others higher up on the food chain conspire to create chaos for him.
I won't give too much about the story away, because it frequently heads off in new, interesting directions, but essentially this is the story of Devon (newcomer child actor Mischa Barton) and the above mentioned Trent (Rockwell) and their relationship. He is poor, she comes from wealthy stock, but feels out of place in her materialistic world and they are both children of nature. What makes it compelling is that she knows this and revels in it and Trent has to be shown, by her.
John Duigan does a wonderful job of introducing strands and themes which at first seem offbeat and peculiar but which all add to the sense prejudice, division and isolation felt by these two brillaintly-wrought characters. Each find the other intriguing but are hesitant to become close because of others' values. Eventually they become friends and just as they accept this, the world around them turns on them and what started out as an irreverent comedy-drama, turns into something much darker and even terrifying.
Where the film goes from there, I will leave to you to discover. Please do, because this is a very unique film in American independent cinema. Much like the more high-profile American Beauty, what at first seems like character cliche and predictability rapidly leads you down the path least expected. Its beautifully shot, making full use of a handful of gorgeous locations, wonderfully acted, particularly by Barton and Rockwell, but also by the ever-reliably sleazy Christopher Mcdonald (Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore and Louise's husband in Thelma & Louise), the quietly strong Kathleen Quinlan and the lesser spotted Bruce McGill in one of his best roles as security guard Nash. The music is also peerless, at first playful and calm, building to a dramatic climax.
That climax is what makes this film stand head and shoulders above the rest. An emotional pay-off such as you have never seen in a film of this ilk. 9/10
I didn't know what this film was about before I sat and watched it, reading the plot summary in the tv guide as the title sequence began, I wondered if I would bother, but I'm glad I did. The film works on several level the most apparent of which is the simple story of a friendship that is threatened. This part works well as the friendship never seems forced and, although the spectre of sexual tension is there (in Trent occasionally feeling uncomfortable), it is not a strand that is actually part of their relationship.
This all works well due (in most part) to two great performances from Barton and Rockwell. Barton shows amazing maturity and ability to carry the role off without it being like many child stars (where it is clear they are forcing everything). Rockwell meanwhile is a mass of subtleties and little touches that make his character likeable.
However this part wouldn't work as well if it weren't for the wider theme of the trash being poorly treated by the smugger middle classes. This theme creates the reason for the threat to their friendship (more or less) but it also serves as a humbling attack on a class that lives a selfish, scared life behind gates with private security guards. Such places are increasingly common in America and this film is clear as to their effect on both those inside them as well as the wider community of America. Although it keeps a gentle tone for the most, the film depicts those in the suburb as selfish, aloof and fearful. Even more condemning about this depiction is that it never feels like they have been exaggerated or monsterised in any way!
The script is well written and certainly makes the actors jobs a lot easier certainly Barton benefits from great dialogue and character development. Rockwell meanwhile benefits more from direction as much of his best work is not dialogue based. McDonald, Quinlan and McGill all do solid work in support. The end of the film is a little worrying as it appears to veer off at a tangent, but the final sentiment is beautifully presented and encouraging (albeit due to a child's apparent naivety).
Overall this is a lovely film that I'm very glad I watched. About more than just an adult/child friendship, this film is moving and involving in both it's core plot and it's wider themes.
It's self-aware enough to acknowledge the inherent sensitivity of its subject matter, but it doesn't cave into conservative conclusions about how such a relationship ought to be portrayed.
At heart, LAWN DOGS is about trust, not the death of innocence or the festering political correctness all around us that sees danger in every unconventional relationship. It does touch on the subject of sexual abuse, but it doesn't come at it from the angle you'd suspect...and that's the whole point, isn't it? Sexual abuse, for the most part, usually visits as someone you've known well enough to trust completely.
Beyond its politics, this is a unique, bracing fantasy that is more European than American (or Australian) in its view world both morally and visually. The climax is an unexpected treat and its moral resolution arrives just in the nick of time.
Sumptuously photographed and written with great intelligence by Naomi Wallace, it dares to be erotic, provoking, unconventional and incisive.
Don't pass it up if you get an offer.
The lawn dogs are the working class boys who are continuously employed to keep the grass down. They do not enjoy high status and must leave the premises after 5 pm. Devon, a highly imaginative kid who makes up fairy stories, becomes friendly with one of the dogs, Trent (Sam Rockwell), who is in his early 20s. She meets him when sent out by her mother to sell gingerbread for the Girl Scouts (called Rangers in the film). Trent at first tries to put her off, knowing full well what people might think, but Devon persists, and a warm but innocent relationship develops. Trent is a not over-bright but slightly rebellious dog and correctly sees in Devon a spirit like his own. Early in the film he holds up the traffic in an entertaining way while cooling off in the river after a hard day's mowing.
The residents of "Camelot Gardens" are all cardboard cut-out awful, Devon's parents especially. Life is so stultifying that most of them seem to be involved in illicit sex. A bored kid steals all the outside lamps and hurls them into the nearby Ohio river. Two teenagers (one of whom has been screwing Devon's mother and the other of whom has designs on Trent's body) put sugar into Trent's mower engine, destroying his livelihood in the mistaken belief he has taken a couple of their CDs. One girl is quite happy to use Trent as a convenient screw but draws the line at inviting him to her house. The postmen and security guy (an ex-cop) aren't so bad, at least from Trent's point of view. They recognise another working class stiff when they see one.
Naturally Trent and Devon are not going to be left alone, but Duigan gives us what is literally a fairy-tale ending, a bit of Kentucky magic realism to match "Bread and Chocolate". The real world is told to sod off, in fact.
I'm not sure the residents of Jefferson and Oldham Counties, who co-operated in the making of the film, will be too pleased with the portrayal of the "Camelot Gardens" residents. But the film isn't really about them. The relationship between Trent and Devon is more older brother - kid sister than anything else though there is an undercurrent of eroticism in Devon's curiosity about Trent's scars and her desire to reveal her own impressive scar from heart surgery. Their joint escapades are pretty innocent and the town's reaction to them completely out of all proportion.
Mischa Devon and Sam Rockwell give two well-rounded and well-connected performances. "Lawn Dogs" an offbeat, pleasantly paced film about friendship and the things that matter in life. Freedom, it says, is more important than financial security, and the one should never be confused with the other. At least if you're 22 or younger.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Sound format: Dolby Digital
The haves and have-nots are put under the microscope in John Duigan's diverting drama LAWN DOGS, and it's the haves who come up wanting in every respect. Sam Rockwell (CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND) is the penniless gardener-cum-handyman who makes a fragile living tending the lawns of contemptuous rich folk, all of whom view him with deep suspicion whilst indulging their own dubious peccadilloes behind closed doors. Mischa Barton (THE SIXTH SENSE, TV's "The O.C.") is a lonely 10 year old girl who's been shielded from the world by her wealthy parents following a recent health scare (she has a faulty heart), but she dares to strike up a friendship with Rockwell after stumbling onto his ramshackle home in the woods, a friendship which she pursues against Rockwell's wishes, until their 'secret' is forced into the open and grossly misinterpreted by Barton's vengeful family.
While the moneyed set lives in antiseptic splendour and conceals its hypocrisy behind security measures of every description, Rockwell's character enjoys an open life in a beautiful forest environment, like the witch Baba Yaga in Barton's favourite fairy tale. In fact, there's a magical, otherworldly quality to much of the film (rendered explicit in the final reel), though the central narrative is fairly low-key and revolves around Rockwell's frequent encounters with the dissolute low-lifes who dare to think themselves superior. With his wiry frame and white trash southern accent, Rockwell strikes something of a romantic figure (watch out for his full-frontal nude scene early in the film), though he never stoops to eccentricity or excess. For one so young, Barton is excellent in such a demanding role, and she holds her own against an experienced adult cast (including Christopher McDonald and Kathleen Quinlan as Barton's narrow-minded parents, and Eric Mabius as the rich jock who can barely conceal his attraction to Rockwell). Beautiful cinematography by Elliot Davis (KING OF THE HILL).
For starters, "Lawn Dogs" is one of those movies that Hollywood could never produce. Good, I say. I look forward to all those films that haven't been tainted by Hollywood's monetary grip.
Firstly, I'd rather not write a review that details every scene. I prefer to not ruin the movie experience for those not fortunate enough to have seen it already. However, I'll still mention a few moments that set it apart from all others.
This movie is about prejudice and love, about close-mindedness and the power of friendship. When you watch the movie for the first time, you get the feeling of a community very much cut off from the world and reality. It has a very 'desert island feel' about it. There is actually so much discrimination in this movie as to be rather frightening in its true-to-life nature.
Sam Rockwell plays Trent in his finest performance on-screen to date. He was actually a superb choice for this movie, having the perfect 'look' for the part. He befriends 10 year old Devon (the astonishing Mischa Barton who should, in my opinion, have been Oscar nominated). Devon is innocent, sweet and trusting - who has yet to be corrupted or taught to discriminate against others of a lower status than her. Morton and Clare (Christopher McDonald and Kathleen Quinlan) brilliantly play her parents who attempt to pry Devon away from Trent throughout the course of the film, trying to make foul of any kindness he has shown her. This makes for painful, yet brilliantly viewable scenes of maliciousness.
There is of course the blatant moral nature of this movie. An obvious one is to look at oneself before judging others. One simple example of this is the scene with Quinlan in her back garden (which I won't spoil). Morton is so wrapped up in the affairs of his daughter and Trent that he fails to notice his own wife. The irony of this is so perfectly fitting and is not resolved by the end of the movie. Angie Harmon plays the user and abuser "girlfriend" very well which just furthers the point the director was trying to get across. Trent is used physically and emotionally in this movie and you can't help but pity his useless situation. Normally when one watches a movie (generally Hollywood movies) you can shout out 'but why didn't you do 'x'?!" In the case of "Lawn Dogs" you find yourself in the troubling position of not knowing what to tell Trent to do. The 'not knowing' makes for interesting viewing as the tale unfolds.
Many people have complained about the fairy-tale nature of the ending, but I see it as beautiful and fitting. This movie is not a fairy-tale. The ending is not wrapped up by any means. Who says the magic at the end of the movie actually happened? Perhaps Trent threw the various items out of his truck as a testament to how strong his friendship with Devon was? Perhaps he imagined the magic as a result of Devon's love? Perhaps, in this community of discriminators, the love from an innocent child took him away at speed from those who would hold him down.
I'll let you decide.
As the end credits roll, you don't receive the satisfaction that only Hollywood can give you when the good guy shoots the bad guy. You're given the satisfaction that friendship and love has won through, but not in the dramatic way only Hollywood can give you. What else really matters?
To sum up, "Lawn Dogs" is such a sparkling gem that didn't need Hollywood's money to buy it, and is all the better for that. A wonderful film I highly recommend. Watch it by yourself in a quiet room and let it envelop you.
(Apologies if some parts of the review didn't make sense - I'd rather leave the discovering part for when/if you actually watch the movie.)
Even more intriguing is the difficulty one has at distinguishing exactly why it is that this film works so flawlessly and just how such a slow moving film can leave a person so thoroughly energized and rejuvenated.
Only a few movies of recent times have even come close to carrying off this irony- think 'Fargo' or better still, 'Love Serenade' (interestingly and perhaps not coincidentally also directed by an Australian).
Every single element of 'Lawn Dogs' is magical. From the direction, cinematography, music and fairytale infused storyline which deals with the universally important issues of friendship, self-identity, family, community and class divisions, to the powerhouse performances from the two lead performers and amazing supporting cast.
John Diugan has demonstrated with 'Lawn Dogs' that he is indeed a true alchemist of the film world that can mix and dabble with the elements to produce pure, solid gold.
On the surface, the story seems to revolve around the relationship between a young man, Trent, and a little girl, Devon, and between the two struggling economic classes that they come from. But the magical cinematography throughout the film, and more than that, Devon's running fairy-tale narration, allude to a deeper meaning in the film that is revealed absolutely in the last five minutes. After all, there is nothing in the world around us that is not represented by symbols within us, and how can we tell whether the inner symbols we deal with represent things outside us, or things within us? It is natural for the world to discourage a relationship between a sexually-active male, and a prepubescent, vulnerable, hungry-for-friends female. It is also natural for the world to discourage an individual from relating to the power within himself, perhaps represented by said young female, to imagine and pursue a better life for himself, when it means he will flee the status quo that makes the rest of the world comfortable.
The setting is a highly artificial, unabashedly bourgeois, gated community in Kentucky, `Camelot Gardens' (see, we're already alluding to fairy tales), and the surrounding countryside, wherein Trent lives in a trailer, making, what can loosely be called, a "living" by mowing the lawns of the rich in Camelot Gardens. The two heroes first meet when Devon happens upon Trent's trailer while wandering into the woods to sell cookies (her capitalist parents' idea), reciting to herself a version of the Russian fairy-tale about the contest between a little girl, like herself, and the witch named `Baba Yaga.' She continues her relationship with the at-first-reluctant Trent, as he continues to mow her parents' lawn. Whom she identifies Baba Yaga with, that is, who is evil in the world, evolves with the story. In the end, she realizes where the true evil lies, and uses the magic charms of her youthful idealism to aid the flight of the oppressed.
I really enjoyed this film. It not only inspires hope, but also possesses a depth sorely lacking in the majority of American films. Much of the symbolism in the story seems to be lifted directly from classical mythology: From the open nakedness of both heroes in the beginning, a necessary reduction of the self to its bare essentials before it can be remade into something new, Trent holding up traffic to dive naked from a one-lane bridge into the local river, a kind of spectacular baptism into a new beginning, and Devon removing her nightgown to bay from her rooftop, like some essential mythic beast imploring the gods of night; to the adorning, i.e. honoring, of the tree outside the door of Trent's trailer, the Sacred Tree, Ygdrasil, the Tree of Life, so honoring life itself, and the demands that life makes of us; to the maenadic frenzy of the dancing chicken feet, a maddening after-chicken-death/chicken-dinner dithyramb; to Trent's conquest over the infernal hound, a Doberman named `Tracker,' who guards the homes of Camelot Gardens, and perhaps guards as well the path to personal power, the hound who, like Cerberus, turns away all cowards (chickens) from the inner realms; to the magic towel and comb of divine deliverance (more on these two symbols below) at the end; the story is full of age-old symbols that affect us deeply, transforming us or renewing us, without our knowing how.
The following passage is taken from Marie-Louise von Franz's `Interpretation of Fairy Tales.' It will help the reader to understand the meaning of the magic comb and towel. (In von Franz's story, a red handkerchief substitutes for the towel.)
Says von Franz:
The girl runs, throwing her magic comb and her red handkerchief behind her. Bestrewing one's trail with objects is characteristic of the magic flight. This act of throwing away things of value is a sacrifice; one throws things over one's shoulder to the dead, or to spirits, or to the devil, to propitiate those whom we dare not face. It may seem panicky to abandon valuable possessions when one is escaping, but one who stiffens himself into a defensive attitude is easily cut down by an assailant stronger than himself, whereas stripping oneself gives mobility. There are situations in which one absolutely has to give up wanting anything, and in this way one slips out from under; one is not there any longer, so nothing more can go wrong. When one is confronted by a hopelessly wrong situation, one must just make a drastic leap to the bottom of passive simplicity, and from there one can live it out.
What is more, the objects which have been sacrificed generally transform themselves into obstacles for the pursuer. The comb at once turns into a forest and becomes a part of nature the hair of mother earth. Its transformation into a natural object suggests that originally it was an integral part of nature. Actually, there is no thought or instrument or object that has not originated from nature; that is, from the unconscious psyche. One sacrifices to the unconscious what once was wrested from it.
The comb is used to arrange and confine the hair. Hair is a source of magic power or mana. Ringlets of hair, preserved as keepsakes, are believed to connect one individual with another over a distance. Cutting the hair and sacrificing it often means submission to a new collective state a giving up and a rebirth. The coiffure is frequently an expression of a cultural Weltanschauung. Primitive folk tales speak of demons being deloused and combed when they are caught, which means that the confusion in the unconscious has to be straightened out, ordered, and made conscious. Because of this meaning, hair in wild disarray is often dreamed of at the start of an analysis. The comb, therefore, represents a capacity for making one's thoughts ordered, clear, and conscious.
The red handkerchief that the girl gives up becomes a flame soaring from earth to heaven. To abandon the staff and comb meant not attempting to marshal herself or to think out a plan. Now the flame indicates that she puts an inner distance between herself and her feelings and emotions. She is reduced to a passive simplicity.
In the tale, the gaping jaws devour the forest and spit water on the flame. Water and fire battle in the unconscious, and in the meantime the girl escapes between the opposites.
saving graces? An adorable Mischa Barton is excellent as curious young Devon-- she was certainly talented at this age, though that might be hard for some to believe since she's inexplicably worsened with age (or laziness?). You might find flaws with her in Lawn Dogs if you're searching for them, but it's probably because you can see the Marissa Cooper in her and because Devon is a cliché construction: precocious youth represents innocence, revolts against the hypocrisy surrounding her. I've seen it, read it, heard it before, and never before did I have to roll my eyes with pseudo-evocative comments like "I don't like children. They smell like TV". A 10-year-old abstracting via synesthesia to get her disillusioned point across? That's abusing any willingness I had left with this movie to suspend my disbelief. But that's not her fault. Overall she's endearing, engaging, even funny, which makes her weekly exhibitions of "acting" on The OC all the more unforgivable. Of course, the #1 reason to watch this movie is Sam Rockwell, who I have yet to see give an uninspired performance in anything. Always bold, unusually brilliant, he'll strangely affect you whether you want him to or not. It's actors like him who make you realize why you love the movies. The relationship between Barton & Rockwell's characters is the third saving grace. Read: the problems with this film do not lie in the performances.
I'm not going to argue with anyone if they love the movie, there may be moments that resonate with you. But like it for it's strengths and not because you're mistaking well-shot moments of quiet insipidness for moments of meaningful poignancy. If I had seen it 10 years ago when I was 13 and just starting to consistently watch indies then I might have enjoyed it more. But I've seen enough to know that Lawn Dogs chews up & spits out ideas & techniques pilfered from preexisting offbeat movies without actually having any real insights of its own. The overt symbolism between class differences is so obvious it's insulting, and comments meant to be profound are executed with as much depth & insight as angsty teen poetry. Now let's count the painfully obvious cliché's, shall we?
1) guy from wrong side of the tracks as society's scapegoat 2) unlikely relationship between kindred spirits: this usually comes in the form of crossing age, gender, & class differences 3) Projecting a myth/fable/fairy tale/work of literature/history lesson as a conscious allusion to the themes & realities of the film. Yeah, I read several versions of Baba Yaga (also known as Bony Legs) when I was younger and it doesn't work so well here as, say, the use of "Peter Pan" in "ET" or countless other movies where this technique is used. 4) precocious youngster represents natural goodness & guides the action of the story 5) manicured lawns and pristine suburban sprawl represent falseness, superficiality, a loss of individuality
None of these would be remotely problematic if they were better executed with some originality. Think how well the show "Weeds" pulls off #5. But I digress
Lawn Dogs says little and means even less. This movie is like a sentimental blubbering loner who sits, cries, whines, but is never for a moment aware enough to know why. You take an interest, you feel kind of bad...but in the long-run you're not really sure why on earth you're supposed to care.
I connected so much with this film and Devon in particular. I rented the dvd a few months after and watched it twice in one night. The acting in here is amazing. Everyone is right on key in their parts! I know you may think well a movie about a friendship between an upper class little girl and a white trash man isn't much for entertainment but believe me it's more than that! You really pull for Devon and Trent throughout the entire movie until the fantasy like ending.
There is just so much in this film that anyone could relate too. It's a beautiful story that you won't likely forget or brush off. If you're looking for a great overlooked little movie that is going to actually get your mind working please rent this!
10 out of 10 stars!!
This is such a beautiful film, everyone should own it. A very modern tale of innocence and its inherent dangers; watch this film and let a young girl named Devon teach you about life. 10 out of 10
I sat thinking for moments after the film of the minor characters, which deftly left indelible impression upon my thoughts. The gentle fingerprints of this film make me truly hopeful for American cinema. This is a wonderful film to see when taking time to embrace the mystery and magic of story telling set to film. Truly, this is an artistic jewel.
I want to also comment on how wonderful it was to see a film that wasn't wrecked by soundtrack. The pace of music set to this treasure was almost sublime. Everything worked well. I just wish there was a commentary feature to the DVD.
Sam Rockwell is as perfect as Trent as he was The Kid in Tom DiCillo's Box of Moonlight. At first Trent seems like any dead-end guy who might cut your grass -- until he parks his old pickup on a one-lane bridge and strips naked, stopping traffic (and a few hearts) as he executes a perfect dive into the river far below.
His at-first-reluctant relationship with the girl Devon (Mischa Barton) blossoms in so many unexpected directions, from dancing on a truck roof to Bruce Springsteen to catching a chicken. You never have any idea where you're headed, but the ride is worthwhile and unforgettable.
The ending is too good to spoil, but will someone PLEASE tell me how they filmed the water-over-the-road sequence?
I can continue to ramble on about how great this movie is, but really you must see it for yourself.
An outstanding success!
Before elaborating on that, though, I found it disturbing that a ten year old girl was in the center of what was a very adult film.
Second, I thought the character of Devon was pretty, well, awful. Her behavior, her thoughtlessness, I found to be unlikable. Some things she did were entirely senseless.
Trent was equally problematic to me. His language (I'm no stranger to profanity, but most decent people try to curb it around impressionable kids). Still, I found him a bit more likable than Devon.
If unlikable characters make a film for you, then LAWN DOGS might b your cup of tea.
Now, to the ill logic. Trent, 20s, tells Devon, 10, to keep their friendship a secret...and then does everything, it seems, to broadcast it! Repeatedly!
At a key point in the story, he commits an act that would and will most assuredly get him in trouble and then, instead of doing the obvious thing to minimize trouble for himself, does just the thing to incriminate himself!
There is sooo much I could say about this film but I don't want to give away spoilers. Suffice it to say I found LAWN DOGS to be overrated and ill logical. It relies on evoking sympathy for two "misunderstood" protagonists but they are rendered in such a way that they come across as stupid and repugnant. That does not a good movie make. I wanted to like Devon and Trent. But I just couldn't. And that was a shame for a movie that has such a promising premise--a premise that, in fact, has been explored to better effect in other films.