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MY LIFE AS A DOG

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anton Glanzelius, Tomas von Bromssen, Anki Liden, Melinda Kinnaman
Director:  Lasse Hallstrom
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Short Film, Lasse Hallstrom Interview, Trailer
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  March 11, 2003

“Why didn’t you want me, mama?”

Film ****

You gotta admire a kid like Ingemar (Glanzelius).  No matter how rough things get for him, he’s always able to think of those with worse luck than him.  Especially Laika, the Russian dog who was sent into space aboard a satellite to die when it ran out of food.  “You have to compare,” he says.  “It helps to keep a little distance.”

My Life as a Dog is one of a precious few rare jewels of a movie about childhood that manages to feel right every step of the way:  no need to make the kids more clever than they are, no need to constantly put experiences into some kind of adult perspective, and most of all, no need to get overly cute or sentimental.  If you made a list of the best movies about childhood ever made, it would be very short, but this one would be there alongside The 400 Blows, George Washington, and Ratcatcher.

The story takes place over about a year in the life of 12 year old Ingemar, as he goes from his mother’s home to his uncle’s one summer, and back again by winter.  He’s a good kid, but accident prone, frequently spilling milk or accidentally turning a small campfire into an inferno.  His terminally ill mother finds less and less patience and ability to deal with him.  Though Ingemar early on claims to love his mother and his dog equally, he will soon lose both.

His experiences in his uncle’s village are warm, funny, and sometimes touching.  Once there, he’s surrounded by a colorful group of eccentric characters, from an aging houseguest who has Ingemar read to him out of women’s underwear catalogs, to the kid with green hair building a UFO, to the local big hearted buxom woman who seems to attract most men but takes a warm liking to Ingemar, to my favorite character, Saga, a blossoming tomboy who pretends to be a guy named Lloyd so she can play football and box, but whose puberty is starting to get in the way.

Strange and wonderful experiences, all, and Ingemar, like most kids, can’t really assemble it all into some kind of perspective, making sharing his encounters all the more heartwarming and real for the audience.  There is humor in the film, but some of it is bittersweet, as Ingemar focuses on his two great loves through it all.  We see his visions of his sick and withdrawn mother as very romanticized, and we pine for the dog he hopes to see again when we’ve already figured out he won’t.

Perhaps the two great eradicators of childhood innocence are sex and death.  Ingemar’s first experiences with women are tame and playful, reflecting the wide-eyed curiosity we all experience at that age.  And for many of us, our first taste of death comes from losing a pet.  It’s compounded sadness for Ingemar that he loses a pet and a parent in the same year.  But his ability to keep his sorrows in perspective is surprisingly mature.  It’s no wonder we leave the film feeling great, and thinking that whatever Ingemar is doing now, he’s doing okay.

Young Anton Glanzelius heads a terrific cast here with a fully realized performance as Ingemar, but give credit to director and co-screenwriter Lasse Hallstrom, too, for doing what few directors have the courage to do:  let the kid be a kid.  The script, based on a novel by Reidar Jonsson (who also co-scripted), is a wonderful cross section of life, and one of those rare stews where the adults are as frequently delightful and memorable as the kids are, though we are invited to ponder:  when grownups don't tell kids the truth about some things, is it to make it easier on the kids, or themselves?

This film could have gone on for twice as long as it did, and I still would have been drawn in to every moment, every frame, every wonderful experience.  When the credits have rolled and you go on about your daily routine but still find yourself thinking about those characters you spent a couple of hours and marveling out how real they were to you, you know you’ve found a very special movie.

Video ***1/2

Criterion scores with a warm and sunny anamorphic transfer (closer to 1.78:1 than the 1.66:1 listed on the box) that looks like a childhood photo come to life.  Colors are well contained and sweetly vibrant, image detail is good throughout but occasionally deliberately softened for a more nostalgic look.  Darker scenes lose a bit of definition in the margins, but there aren’t many of those.  Overall, this transfer marries the visual look to the experience of the film very nicely.

Audio **

Like most mono soundtracks, this effort serves the purpose but otherwise makes few demands on your system or your ears.  Most of the movie is dialogue oriented, with a few livelier crowd scenes, all of which come across respectably well.  No complaints.

Features **1/2

The disc features a 1973 made-for-TV movie by Lasse Hallstrom, Shall We Go to My or Your Place or Each Go Home Alone?, plus a brand new retrospective interview with Hallstrom on My Life as a Dog, and the original trailer.

Summary:

My Life as a Dog offers a rewarding and enriching movie watching experience.  Kudos to Criterion for making this modern Swedish classic available on such an attractive DVDs for a new generation of fans to cherish.