Dog Days of Summer
Something Decent This Way Comes

Have you ever heard of Colin Key? 

Neither have I; but if you see Dog Days of Summer, you’ll probably want to see a good deal more of him, even though he appears only in the flash-forward framing sequences of this low-budget coming-of-cynicism drama. 

Key’s Phil Walden works for a power utility, and he returns to the abandoned town where he was raised just prior to its flooding. He hesitantly wanders its littered streets, a resonant, world-weary voiceover telling us about “the summer I learned to hate.” When he warns us that “it turns my stomach to look at this place,” the tone is so serious that it sets our own stomachs on edge… and rightly so.

Devan Gearhart as Phillip in Dog Days of Summer

Ted Baehr has compared the film to Ray Bradbury’s work, and for once I agree with Movieguide. First-time feature director Mark Freiburger has cribbed from his own short film of the same name, infused it with the period spookiness of Something Wicked This Way Comes, and upped the ante with macabre touches hinting of Tennessee Williams… and the lighter moments of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me.  When young Jackson Patch leads into a ghost story with “It’s one of the scariest things ever,” his pal Phillip replies, “Tell me.  And that’s our response to Freiburger’s tale precisely.

Phillip and Jackson, you see, have been recruited by sideshow miniaturist Eli Cottonmouth—is he Savior, or Serpent?—to photograph their small, Edenic southern town so that Cottonmouth can capture its essence for the model he’s building as part of the 250th anniversary celebration of the town’s founding.  And yet it’s clear to Phillip—as well as to us—that this is a town which is coming apart at the seams.  The twisted trestle-rail cables that the older Phil passed in the film’s intro tells us all we need to know without any words at all; and when Cottonmouth warns the boys, “One day you boys are gonna know what it’s like to die,” we’re pretty certain he’s not just making idle and abstract hints.

In 1986, David Lynch made quite a name for himself by blowing the lid off of Leave-it-to-Beaverville with Blue Velvet, employing severed ears (and, uh, cheesily mechanical robins) to “reveal” the dark side of suburbia.  More recently, Pleasantville “exposed” a similar truth.  But for my money, Dog Days of Summer strikes much nearer home when it comes to the seamy side of reality.  Gas masks, four-letter words, and over-wrought color metaphors really don’t carry the weight of a nine-year-old’s knowledge that dad cheats on mom… or that mom’s really quite okay with that. 

The vast majority of us have been disillusioned long before we’re old enough to see a Lynch film, and it comes as no great surprise to most college students that authority figures abuse both their power and their charges. In the end, Dog Days of Summer is a fine film about loss, true villainy, and recapturing faith that might be too intense for kids, but which will likely connect with the wounded kid that lies within most adults. In fact, if a darker, more tragic version of The Kid sounds interesting to you, this might be what you’re looking for.

It really helps, too, that Freiburger struck gold with the two strongest members of the cast, veteran child actors Devon Gearhart as Phillip and Colin Ford as Jackson.  I’m sure we all remember the young River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton from Stand By Me, but Gearhart and Ford are every bit as good, if not better. 

Still, even though I also fell in love with the film’s production design (though budget constraints never quite sell the period setting)—and with Freiburger’s restrained but effective use of rack focus and other camera techniques—I have to say that the cast’s highest-profile member, Will Patton as Cottonmouth, is almost the exact opposite of Colin Key: the actor you know quite well, but have had just about enough of for one lifetime.

Luckily for us, Patton’s smarmy smile works well for Cottonmouth… and Key’s voiceover lays the tracks so well that very little could derail the film’s narrative momentum.

Dog Days of Summer is unrated; but I’d PG-13 would be a safe bet.  Though the central characters are children, their experiences are processed at a much higher level.  This is a film that might well frighten some children nearly to death; watch it yourself first.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Dog Days of Summer.