'Sun Dogs': Film Review | LAFF 2017

Courtesy of Caviar
Winningly droll, and packs an unexpected punch.

Toplining a cast that includes Melissa Benoist, Xzibit, Allison Janney and Ed O'Neill, Michael Angarano plays a well-meaning but deluded oddball in Jennifer Morrison's directing debut.

Jennifer Morrison, the recently departed star of the ABC series Once Upon a Time, segues confidently to the director's chair with Sun Dogs, a comic drama that deftly navigates a tricky line. The story of a mentally challenged young man and his quixotic mission to serve his country could easily have turned cringe-inducing or merely ridiculous. But Michael Angarano, leading an excellent cast, inhabits the role of a single-minded misfit without the slightest hint of mawkishness, embracing his exasperating qualities no less than his endearing ones. Morrison balances her affection for all the characters with droll naturalism and an assured visual style.

Working from a screenplay by Anthony Tambakis (whose credits include the Morrison starrer Warrior, and who uses the nom de film Raoul McFarland for the new movie), Morrison has cited Hal Ashby's Being There as a key inspiration. The idea of a sheltered, innocent soul being mistaken for — and becoming — a heroic figure, à la the 1979 film's Chauncey Gardiner, is an essential aspect of Sun Dogs' story, and there's a strong '70s sensibility to the character-driven film. But it also recalls the more recent Lars and the Real Girl with its unforced emphasis on communal support for an oddball. The well-crafted feature, a world-premiere selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival, could parlay its name cast and engaging warmth into art-house exposure.

Like many Americans, Angarano’s Ned Chipley, who lives with his parents in rural California and does menial work at a casino, was galvanized by the 2001 attacks on the United States. But given his limited intellectual capacities — explained with just a few words, late in the proceedings — his goal of becoming a Marine is a delusion, albeit one that charms more people than it offends. Ned's mother, Rose (Allison Janney), a nurse who once dreamed of a life in New York City, gently encourages his sense of purpose, to the frustration of his cranky stepfather, Bob (Ed O'Neill), a trucker who feels adrift as he awaits a hoped-for insurance payout for a road accident.

On his birthday in 2004, Ned takes the bus through picturesque mountains to San Diego for his annual attempt to enlist in the Marines. His anti-terrorist fervor is a familiar source of fond amusement at the recruitment center (where Morrison cameos winningly as the Marine at the front desk). But the new master sergeant, Jenkins (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner, pitch-perfect), is unprepared for Ned's talking points, manually typed out on index cards, and his gung-ho announcement that, "I have field readiness." Wanting to let the kid down easy, Jenkins convinces him to focus his attentions on the home front as a "special operative," not understanding the obsessive investigations this diversion will prompt.

In no time Ned is accosting strangers to assure them that he's on the case, the case being saving lives and protecting the country, and thrusting his fresh-from-Kinko's business cards in their hands. His take-charge attitude intrigues Tally (Melissa Benoist), a runaway at loose ends. Impressed that his preferred reading material is the 9/11 Commission Report, she becomes his civilian partner in undercover detective work, eager to help Ned prove his questionable thesis that his turban-wearing boss (Nicholas Massouh) is an enemy of the state.

Though their adventures in idealism might be misguided, the two outsiders forge a bond of true friendship, their mutual attraction and drastic differences in experience played just right. Benoist (Lowriders, TV's Supergirl) eloquently conveys the brokenness in Tally without overdoing it, making clear why she would spark to Ned as a man of mystery and action, his goofy awkwardness only deepening the image of someone hell-bent on saving the world. Her eventual discovery of the truth about Ned is the movie's most formulaic plot point, but Morrison's sensitive direction lends it nuance.

Angarano's self-serious Ned manages to feel both immature and old beyond his years, the character's quirky mannerisms subtly complicated by his unexpressed yearnings. Ned's determination to be helpful proves unexpectedly profound and powerful as the drama crescendos, along with Mark Isham's ace score, in an extraordinary moment that ties together key narrative threads.

These include Ned's love of war movies, specifically The Deer Hunter. He imagines himself in jungle combat — sequences that cinematographer Michael Alden Lloyd drenches in thick shadow, a striking contrast to the rich, golden palette that aptly bathes most of the film.

At its essence, Sun Dogs is a story about compassion. That's the subject of Ned's every meaningful interaction, whether tender or comically deadpan, and whether he's offering advice or receiving it. Rather than reaching for irony, Morrison lets the story's sincerity shine, not just in Ned and Tally's openhearted exchanges but in the unexpectedly paternal benevolence of Xzibit's military man and in the exquisitely lived-in performances of Janney and O'Neill as Ned's parents. Though their words may be tinged with regret, Rose and Bob are, in different ways, inspired by the indefatigable Ned, and still trying. There's no question, in Angarano's portrayal and the film as a whole, that this eccentric do-gooder would have such an effect.

Production companies: Caviar, Fabrica de Cine, Apartment 3C Productions
Cast: Michael Angarano, Melissa Benoist, Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner, Allison Janney, Ed O'Neill, J.R. Ramirez, Eric Christian Olsen, Niko Nicotera, Nicholas Massouh, Alexander Wraith, Fernando Chien, Tom Berninger
Director: Jennifer Morrison
Screenwriter: Raoul McFarland
Producers: Gaston Pavlovich, Bert Hamelinck, Andrew Carlberg, Manu Gargi, Jennifer Morrison, Michael Sagol
Executive producers: Jasper Thomlinson, Tony Dabdoub, Madeline Samit, Dickey Abedon, Prithvi Chavan
Director of photography: Michael Alden Lloyd
Production designer: Glen Hall

Costume designer: Suzanne Barnes
Editor: Joe Talbot Hall
Composer: Mark Isham
Casting director: Tamara-Lee Notcutt
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: UTA

94 minutes

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