A Hard Look at Year of the Dog
When Passion Goes Too Far... And Then Comes Back

The following commentary is more in depth than our usual reviews. If you prefer not to know too much about a movie before seeing it, this article might be more appropriate for an after-viewing read.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and anyone who has had a pet understands that those fuzzy little family members eat up everything: your time, your energy, your affection, your verbal IQ, and your wallet (and the money in it), not to mention your ever-lovin’ heart.

And that’s where Year of the Dog starts—with a single woman’s obsession with her beagle mix, Pencil. OK, it’s not really an obsession—Pencil is her roommate, her confidante, and her constant companion, and she not too surprisingly adores him. So when he stubbornly stays out one night and pilfers some lethal pest poison from somewhere close by, Peggy’s world falls down around her; her emotions, her social life, and her sense of purpose unravel indecorously around her doggie-walking feet.

Molly Shannon as Peggy in Year of the DogConsequently, while entertaining romantic hopes with an emotionally-stunted animal rights activist, Peggy turns into a rabid crusader for animal rights—researching animal charities and rescue centers and even becoming a strict vegan. The problem is, her advocacy becomes her identity, and she begins covert operations to recruit adoptive pet owners, research farm animal rescue shelters, and donate to animal charities while on the clock. Her heavy-handed campaign leads her to be dishonest, even to the point of performing blatantly illegal acts. Her friends, her family, and her unfortunate acquaintances are all alienated as she zealously pursues her new interest, allowing it to absorb every moment of her time, every spare synapse of her brain (when there aren’t many to begin with), every conversation she begins, interrupts, or brings to an abrupt and uncomfortable end.

It wasn’t until after this rather weird movie was over, and I could talk it over with my husband, that I came to the conclusion that the plotline may not have been the point of the story. In a general sense, the story is of a young woman who, after an identity-shattering loss, goes a bit off the deep end before returning to some semblance of sanity, while staying true to her new convictions. But, after thinking about it, I think that writer/director Mike White is really making a larger statement, couching it terms that are non-threatening and accessible to a wide audience.

To wit: Peggy’s problem is not that she is a fervent animal activist. It’s not that she does bizarre, irrational, and even illegal things in the name of animal rights. It’s not even that she invested her entire identity into her new passion, until it became the primary motivation for every thought, word, and decision she encountered. Her problem is that she has never felt so strongly about a cause, so when she finds her “purpose,” she doesn’t know how to be passionate without becoming one-dimensional.

And this is where I think White’s film makes its true point.

We live in a world caught in the insufferable tension between passionate devotion to ideals and the inexorable cry for tolerance. There are religious extremists who become human detonators, killing and injuring fellow human beings in an effort to impose their beliefs on others. There are other religious extremists who wish to impose their morals on others through legislation against certain practices. Other extremists destroy the property of other people, again wishing to impose their beliefs on those who feel or believe differently. The problem is not with the beliefs themselves; it is in the ways in which people attempt to force their beliefs on others, without acknowledging that other (perfectly sane, rational, intelligent) people may legitimately disagree—or even agree, but just not to the point of disruptive or destructive action.

Fortunately for Peggy, she eventually comes around. Without compromising her new-found principles, and without abandoning the fervor with which she pursues them, she returns to rational—yet passionate—ground, and asks others to understand her views and the changes she has made in light of them. After apologizing for the unprofessional, undermining, and overbearing ways with which she first approached her activist passions, she lets the people in her life know that, unapologetically, this is who she is. Animal Rights are her passion, and they always will be. She acknowledges that she need not preach the virtues of a vegan diet, or take her niece to the rescued-chicken farm, or ruin her sister-in-law’s furs, or embezzle money from her company to filter toward animal rights organizations. But she is rightfully proud of what she stands for, and asks that others accept her as she is, and she vows to do likewise.

While the film itself seemed as quirky as the main character, the “subtext” addressing fervor and activism is well-played. Without making any group of activists out to be entirely weird or daft or illogical, Year of the Dog does well in demonstrating how the beliefs that characterize who we are need not be destructive or obsessive or dictatorial. Each of us can hold beliefs very strongly, very deeply; and we can be moved to do many things by those beliefs. They can truly define who we are, aptly influencing every part of our lives. But we need not force our beliefs on others in order for our convictions to bear influence. We need not legislate our own morality—whether through local government or workplace politics or family dynamics—for it to be noticed and respected and—possibly—adopted.

We can celebrate and embrace who we are and that which makes us who we are—all while celebrating and embracing those with whom we agree as well as those with whom we must agree to disagree. Peace, open dialogue, rational discussion, and acceptance need not be sacrificed to the gods of activism.

Year of the Dog is rated PG-13 for some suggestive references. I suppose that’s adequate, since one of Peggy’s coworkers (as well as her lecherous boyfriend) is a little too free with her views on coupling. But I don’t remember being particularly offended by any “suggestive reference.”

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jenn attended a promotional screening of Year of the Dog.