Mike White's directorial debut Year of the Dog is definitely a Mike White film. The quirky, subtle comedy surprises the audience as it sneaks in alongside the tale of a tender, animal-loving secretary. More surprising, though, is seeing how much of White's vision not only plays into this film, but also into the films he wrote before directing (The Good Girl, The School of Rock, Nacho Libre). I didn't realize how much I loved White's voice until I saw Year of the Dog.
Molly Shannon stars as Peggy, an executive assistant whose life revolves around her beagle Pencil. One night, Peggy lets Pencil outside but doesn't wait for him to come back inside. She wakes to find her beloved pet in her neighbor's yard, nearly lifeless, barely whimpering. Yes, Pencil dies.
Without an outlet for her love, Peggy takes an offer to adopt a pet from veterinary hospital receptionist Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). Newt opens Peggy up to the world of animal activism and veganism, but Peggy's attempt to share her love for animals with others doesn't turn out the way she plans.
Oh, how I loved Shannon's performance as Peggy. It's a far cry from the underarm-sniffing school girl of her Saturday Night Live past. Shannon, who has had wonderful turns with roles in Marie Antoinette and a short-lived Mike White sitcom, turns Peggy into a character with whom we easily empathize. Even her slip into the shallow waters of insanity seems forgivable when it occurs with such restraint and care.
White's writing, more than Shannon, makes it easy to understand Peggy. As he tells this story, Peggy is surrounded by people whose own blind love makes them do or believe things that even the always-supportive Peggy sees as peculiar. We can laugh at the moments when Peggy's sister-in-law (Laura Dern) won't let her child have a cuddly stuffed toy because of the fibers in the toy's fur or when Newt explains how his relationships with animals have always been better than his relationships with humans. Not once does it seem mean-spirited. We laugh because our own obsessions are probably just as silly to people looking in from the outside.