by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Therapy Dogs
This is a No Man is an Island film review written in collaboration with Cinema Escapist as part of coverage of the 2022 Asian American International Film Festival. Keep an eye out for more!
THERAPY DOGS is a creatively stylized take on high school, following two friends in their senior year. Though the film is unlikely to appeal to all viewers, given its deliberately disjointed narrative, it manages to capture something of the nihilism–and violence–of wayward teenagers.
The movie follows two high school seniors, Justin and Ethan, as they set out to make “the ultimate senior video.” That is, the two seek to document the reality of Canadian high school life as they see it with a video camera. This frame intrudes into the plot but also disappears when needed, such as when the two characters are not in the same place. By the time the film concludes, this frame has disappeared for the most part.
As the movie quickly shows, Justin and Ethan are both lost souls, with Justin prone to fits of self-destructive violence and self-harm. Ethan proves much more detached, but is concerned about his friend, and sometimes tags along Justin as an observer, and other times as an accomplice.s.
The two suburban protagonists are discovering themselves for the first time, and constantly testing the limits of their world. They not explore their suburban environment, but also take pointless risks–seemingly just for the thrills, or precisely because of attraction to danger.
One scene which embodies the movie’s overall ambition features Justin strapped to a car, filming with his camera until police stop the vehicle. The camera then follows their subsequent interactions with the police officer as though shooting a fly-on-the-wall documentary, rather than trying to infuse the scene with any sort of dramatization. Perhaps the film can be read as something like a contemporary Canadian version of La Haine, though without the social commentary.
The overall tone of Therapy Dogs is wistful, as though told from the perspective of a later point in life, looking back at the end of one’s youth. At the same time, the story manages to grasp something very tangible about undirected, male adolescent rage at the world.
Indeed, it is probably when Therapy Dogs shifts away from a wistful register and stages various tonally jarring set pieces that the movie really comes into its own.. One of the best-written scenes in the film has Ethan entering a strip club in the hopes of inviting a stripper to prom, then spending what appears to be several hours discussing sexuality and the outcome of life choices during adolescence with the strippers. This is depicted in the form of video game graphics, rather than through live acting.
If there is a flaw to the film, it may be the two protagonists are unbalanced, with Justin proving the far more dynamic, charismatic character and swallowing up the plot. This is to Ethan’s detriment, in that Ethan’s role in the story seems to gradually recede over time. Justin ultimately proves the more well-developed character, as we lack insight into Ethan’s motivations or inner darkness.
But this may be a product of the movie’s production process. Ethan is played by Ethan Eng, who directed the film, while Justin is played by Justin Morrice, who co-wrote the film with Eng. Therapy Dogs enjoys an excellently written script and capable direction; the duo also prove themselves talented actors.
Disappointingly, the film’s ending feels a bit awkward. Therapy Dogs uses after-credit scenes that strike as somewhat unnecessary and distracting from the rest of the plot. The film’s ending is satisfying enough without an addendum; these superfluous after-credit scenes twist the ending in an arbitrary direction.
That minor flaw aside, Therapy Dogs fittingly illustrates not only the technical deftness of Eng and Morrice’s filmmaking, but also their remarkable capacities for storytelling. With Therapy Dogs, the duo tell a stylistically bold story about youth.