Jacques Thelemaque's long-shelved The Dogwalker is the kind of deeply earnest indie that kills at film festivals and dies quietly everywhere else. As a drama about quirky, beaten-down outsiders who form an unlikely but supportive makeshift family, it boasts a plot that indie filmmakers recycle as often as their mainstream counterparts crank out action thrillers about hard-drinking renegade cops who play by their own rules. But if executed with passion and craft, even the most timeworn formula can yield impressive results. And while there are moments throughout when the film looks primed to break out of the indie arthouse ghetto, it never quite pulls it off.
The Dogwalker begins by rubbing viewers' faces in the asphalt of hardcore minimalism. In its first 10 minutes alone, physically abused protagonist Diane Gaidry flees Buffalo one step ahead of the latest in a long line of abusive boyfriends, is robbed and beaten by an Asian gang while trying to score weed in L.A., and is mistaken for a prostitute. Is it any wonder Gaidry comes to see working as assistant dog-walker as a big step up, quality-of-life-wise? Gaidry finally catches a break when she hooks up with cantankerous veteran dog-walker Pamela Gordon, who calls Gaidry "a pathetic pothead punching bag," but sees a lot of herself in the younger woman all the same. At one point, Gaidry and Gordon literally compare scars, in a sequence that whistles for the subtlety police.
Gaidry brings a squirmy vulnerability to the role of a battered, bruised survivor who long ago reconciled herself to just barely getting by. Accordingly, she's entirely willing to settle for Mr. Barely Adequate, which is exactly what she gets. Gaidry and Gordon have a winning, thorny chemistry that defies easy sentimentality even when death rears its ugly (and narratively convenient) head. But The Dogwalker doesn't build to a conclusion so much as it gradually peters out, and Gaidry's grim romantic travails don't amount to much. As a lost little puppy of an indie, The Dogwalker boasts a scruffy underdog charm, but sometimes that just isn't enough. If IFC and Animal Planet ever decide to start a channel together, however, they've got at least 90 minutes of airtime filled.