Vague Visages’ Therapy Dogs review contains minor spoilers. Ethan Eng’s 2022 movie stars himself, Justin Morrice and Kevin Tseng. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
In Therapy Dogs, Ethan Eng and Justin Morrice put together a video yearbook to catalogue their class’ final year in high school. Or at least that’s the explanation they give to student interviewees. In truth, the teenage filmmakers’ ambition goes beyond merely commemorating the final year of their school experience. In their own words, they want to “rip the flesh off this school to see what really makes it tick.”
Therapy Dogs is a fictionalized account of Ethan and Justin’s experience rather than a true documentary, but it certainly feels like a lot of the footage was captured organically. The school is real, along with the classmates, and there’s a guerrilla-style roughness to Eng’s cinematography. Most importantly, Therapy Dogs almost never lets the audience know exactly how much is staged.
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While Ethan and Justin are nominally the protagonists, Therapy Dogs skitters around far too freely to be restrained by any sort of conventional coming-of-age narrative. Chopped up into rough segments and full of sudden smash cuts, the film bounces all around Ontario’s Cawthra Park Secondary School, as well as the various haunts and house parties where its students can be found after class. Therapy Dogs seems disjointed at first, with each new scene bombarding viewers with new faces and new places before zooming away somewhere else. One minute, Ethan and Justin guffaw while they graffiti a school wall; the next, a school band performs. Play rehearsals are followed by prom proposal montages. Eng provides quiet, candid interviews and ethereal, near-wordless party scenes.
Rather than focusing on a set of clearly defined characters who can act as avatars for different aspects of the high school experience, Therapy Dogs makes an audacious attempt to cram the whole thing into a bombastic 82 minutes. It’s a mad collage of mood and memory, snatching up parts from all across Ethan and Justin’s adolescent world and slamming it onto the screen. The effect is a movie that feels fit to burst, so overflowing with energy and emotion that it has to keep moving otherwise it might explode (which is a pretty good cinematic simulacra for life as a teenage boy).
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Throughout Therapy Dogs, the anxious energy bubbles up in all sorts of odd ways. Ethan and Justin take part in shirtless brawls and giggle through dangerous stunts. It’s pretty clear that they’re going through a lot of complicated emotions underneath it all, but they struggle to filter those feelings through a constrictive vocabulary of teenage masculinity. They can’t find the words for why they’re feeling hurt, so they settle for “Bro, you’re being a dick.” Or they say nothing and go find something to punch.
Therapy Dogs actually begins with one of these moments of explosive, self-destructive emotion. Justin rides along in a car with his mom, gazing blankly out the passenger-side window while she lectures him about the need to knuckle down and really do something with his final year. Eventually, Justin decides that he can’t stand to listen to any more and bails out the moving vehicle, tumbling along the tarmac with his arms tucked into his chest in a perfect imitation of a memorable Lady Bird (2017) scene.
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What initially seems like a cute call-out actually gets back to the opening mission statement about trying to put the truth of high school on film. Therapy Dogs constantly shifts between different layers of reality and performance — from Ethan and Justin’s spontaneous play shenanigans right up to student films and PSAs. But even in the most natural moments, the students always kind of perform because that’s what teenagers do. They act up for their teachers, parents and peers, trying on different personas in an ongoing search for one that feels authentic to their true self. Or maybe just one that helps them hide it better. Their expectation for what high school should be is informed by decades of shows, songs and movies, and these fictions are as much a part of the DNA of high school life as pranks, proms and homework assignments.
Therapy Dogs returns to the film’s initial question about the “truth” of high school. Ultimately, Eng isn’t really trying to provide a clear answer to that. Instead, Therapy Dogs captures how incredibly urgent the question itself feels to kids like Ethan and Justin. What is this period in life? What is it really supposed to be about? The one that adults tell kids to treasure so dearly, the one that slips away so quickly.
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Backed by a soundtrack from Ricky Eat Acid and Teen Suicide that’s ecstatic and melancholy in turns, Therapy Dogs sucks viewers into a headspace and holds them there — a person on the cusp of adulthood, exhilarated for the life they’re about to embark on, but still terrified of what they’re leaving behind.
Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.
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Categories: 2020s, 2023 Film Reviews, Comedy, Drama, Featured
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