SLAMDANCE 2022 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! The most outstanding achievement of Ethan Eng’s study of high school seniors, Therapy Dogs, is its verisimilitude. With a documentary-like approach, albeit crammed to the brink with visual embellishments, the film strays away from conventional plot structure as it traces the lives of angst-ridden adolescents in disconnected snapshots. As a result, there’s a rawness to the pixelated, shaky images that sticks with you. “It’s the movie you all deserve,” Ethan says, filming his peers, “the truth about high school.”
Justin (Justin Morrice) and Ethan (Eng) are best friends. The opening shot gives us a glimpse of Justin’s life: he would rather jump out of a moving vehicle than engage in conversation with his mother. From this point on, however, poignancy becomes secondary to candid shots of teens taking LSD, smoking a bong at a sausage fest, jumping from a dangerously tall bridge, and punching lockers and walls for the sake of it.
At a certain point, one of the protagonists storms through the school dressed as Wolverine, roaring and causing havoc. Justin and Ethan beat the crap out of each other. Justin ratchet-straps himself to the top of a car, which proceeds to donuts in the school parking lot; an encounter with the cops follows. Our heroes climb a water tower (“You can see Toronto from here.”). Rebellious and dumb, creative and misguided, these kids engage in inconsequential, foolish activities, tempting fate out of boredom.
“…candid shots of teens taking LSD, smoking a bong at a sausage fest, jumping from a dangerously tall bridge…”
The sequences that stand out in Therapy Dogs are the ones that allow the understatement of that opening scene to resurface: Ethan saying the wrong thing to Justin about their friendship, the three-part study of musician Kevin (Kevin Tseng), the kids asking each other to prom in inventive ways – one involving a stripper. The ending mirrors the opening in its surprising sensitivity – a tragedy handled with subtlety.
While the DIY “we shot this ourselves during school hours” aesthetic buoys the non-narrative, it also weighs the film down on multiple occasions. There’s only so much footage shot by an ADD-addled teenager that one can bear; the shaky imagery, the equally jittery editing, the redundant chapter titles (“A Story from Last Summer,” “The World Is a Beautiful Place”) become tiring.
That said, the filmmaker’s style is emblematic of the current generation, hooked on social media and unable to focus for more than a few moments, reveling in boredom and doing stupid s**t just because. Look at Therapy Dogs as a cautionary tale, one bound to horrify unaware parents. Eng doesn’t seem to give a f**k whether you respond to it or not. Good for him.
Therapy Dogs screened at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.
"…there's a rawness to the pixelated, shaky images that sticks with you."