“Sun Dogs,” which screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival/Cinefest and is written and directed by Jason Affolder, is another self-important movie about an underachieving 30-something who scrapes by on pseudo-philosophy. The protagonist is Michael (Matt Palumbo), a high school teacher on summer break. He makes money by donating plasma every 3 days and spends most of it on booze. In his spare time, he cavorts with, and dispenses advice to, a latchkey teenage boy. It takes a lot of chutzpah to write and direct movie like this. You have to be pretty confident that your dialogue is groundbreaking or, at the very least, realistic. If it isn’t, you’ll have a tedious mess on your hands. And that, my friends, is “Sun Dogs.”
When he’s not attached to a needle, swigging from a whiskey bottle on a park bench or selling contraband to teenagers, Michael likes a bit of karaoke. But he only does one song: “Cupid” by Sam Cooke. One evening, a girl named Ashley catches his performance and violently rips the mic away from him, before storming out. Thus begins their irritatingly complicated love affair. She doesn’t believe in love. He does. She doesn’t want a commitment. He does. She has secrets. He also has secrets. Will these secrets tear them apart?! Whatever!
Michael also spends a lot of time with a high school student named Andy, teaching him to drive and dispensing love advice. Andy is ignored by his single, working mother. You can tell she ignores him because they are out of cereal. In fact, this movie is full of hackneyed short-hand moments like that. Michael and Ashley are whimsical because they dance in the street when there’s no music! Chess is a metaphor for life! Puh-lease!
“Sun Dogs” is supposed to be about quirky, lonely people who say offbeat things that double as universal truths. It’s tries very hard to be “Me, You and Everyone We Know.” But Miranda July’s movie works because her story is full of humility. Her characters have real reactions to life as it happens to them. They take it one moment at a time. In “Sun Dogs,” the characters see everything as a metaphor for the big picture. Michael says things like “I’m watching the present become the past”, “You gotta pick the golden peanuts out of the s**t pile” and “It’s an accidental world” and you can hear Affolder’s smugness in every line. There’s a desk calendar out there that could use his brand of wisdom. But in script format, it’s a bloated mess.
The dialog wouldn’t be so intolerable if the characters were at least somewhat interesting. But Affolder doesn’t give us any reason at all to care about them. So he’s a lonely teenager. So she’s a waitress who paints trees and doesn’t get along with her mother. So he’s a poor, alcoholic high school teacher. So what? Do they do or say anything we haven’t seen or heard before? The most interesting thing about Michael is that he has a beard. But then, at Ashley’s request, he shaves it. . . into a soul patch. He’s a soul patch kind of guy. How much do you want to bet that Jason Affolder also has a soul patch?