SLAMDANCE 2022 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! Tommy Hyde’s heartwarming documentary Underdog traces the life of an aging Vermont dairy farmer. If that brief logline doesn’t scream “invigorating experience,” Hyde’s subtlety as a filmmaker, along with the fabulous, eccentric central figure — Doug Butler — bring to mind David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Both films are remarkable for how seemingly unremarkable they are. Stick with it, and the film’s subliminal power will sneak up on you.
The embellishments end with the triple meaning of the title Underdog – the film is an underdog, as is Butler, and the plot centers around canines. There’s no narration, no stylistic flourishes. Instead, Hyde allows his subject and the imagery to speak for themselves, which enhances the experience, plunging the viewer into the farmer’s quiet, remote, unforgiving life.
Butler lives on the farm his family has owned for almost a century. On the farm, aside from cows, he owns a herd of dogs – 22 of them, to be exact. He knows them all by name. When he’s not applying for grants or struggling to keep his farm afloat, Butler stays busy buck hunting and swinging his golf club. But he’s never happier than when he’s mushing. Yes, Butler likes to attach himself to a bunch of mutts on a four-wheeler – or sled – and race down bumpy dirt roads or icy paths. “S**t man, I’m getting an erection!” he exclaims, giddy after a particularly exciting ride.
“…traces the life of an aging Vermont dairy farmer.”
After Butler’s cows die off, his debt rises. Winters are brutal, so he’s faced with the choice of whether or not to sell the place. “Is it called depression right now?” he wonders. Despite an unnerving diagnosis from his doctor, Butler embarks on the ultimate race, one that takes place in Alaska. “I’ve been dreaming about this for 30-odd years,” he tells a local radio deejay.
Butler makes for a multifaceted hero: charming, rugged, witty, desolate, passionate. “The Swedish people, they were a little strange,” he says after an international race, “but the rest of them were just unbelievable.” He becomes excited to the point of delirium when he hunts, even more so when he races, but is nonchalant about shooting his severely diseased cow. “I go through hell before I get to heaven,” he states in a resonant moment. Perhaps the most heartrending scene of Underdog comes towards the end, when Butler has no choice but to discuss potentially selling his dogs.
The film encompasses a variety of themes: how one’s passion keeps them afloat, pursuing dreams despite overwhelming odds, how age is just a number. Sometimes, winning the race is beyond the point. Life might be crumbling, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a blast. All of this is presented in a quiet, charming fashion, gaining an understated pathos as it progresses.
Hyde’s doc is also a glimpse into a little-seen part of America, a dying breed of people, a dying type of farming. Underdog may seem like a story with niche appeal, but the result will surely resonate with all the underdogs out there.
Underdog screened at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.
"…presented in a quiet, charming fashion..."