The most heartbreaking cinematic death so far this year doesn't happen to a doomed romantic heroine or a consumption-stricken historical figure, but to Year Of The Dog's sweet little beagle, Pencil, whose premature passing spurs grief-stricken owner Molly Shannon to tentatively explore the outside world. The film marks the directorial debut of Mike White, a former Dawson's Creek scribe whose screenwriting has established him alternately as a squirmy indie-film miserablist (The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck), a gentle humanist (The School Of Rock), and a hired gun specializing in broad physical comedy (Nacho Libre and Orange County).
White's surprisingly assured film explores The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck's sad-sack, defiantly uncommercial subject matter with The School Of Rock's understated affability. In a revelatory performance, Saturday Night Live also-ran Shannon plays the kind of retiring wallflower who lets the carefully clipped Cathy cartoons festooning her cubicle express the sadness and anxiety she keeps hidden. But when her beloved dog dies, Shannon's life of quiet desperation becomes an extended howl of despair. Desperate to make a human connection, she goes on a disastrous date with John C. Reilly, the oblivious good ol' boy next door, before stumbling into an unsteady friendship with animal-rights activist Peter Sarsgaard, an androgynous, damaged soul with weird baggage the film only hints at.
A distinct generosity of spirit informs Year Of The Dog. Even Reilly's character, a goon who has no difficulty reconciling his affection for a long-dead hunting dog with his passion for killing and displaying larger animals around his house, is more clueless than mean-spirited. Like a distaff Marty, Dog indelibly chronicles the emotional thaw of a woman seemingly resigned to living life quietly on the sidelines until fate spurs her into action. White's gently perceptive film is a funny, poignant, emotionally honest minor-key character study about a painfully shy woman whose scary, uncertain adult life begins when her dog's happy little existence ends.