Therapy Dogs has its European première at Glasgow Film Festival 2023
“You have to change. This is the last year of high school, you can’t be fooling around anymore. It’s time to start thinking about your future. What you wanna do, who you wanna be. And how you go through high school affects all of that. Talk to the guidance counsellor. Have a plan this year. Don’t waste it. Ok, Justin? You’re not gonna have fun with your friends forever. That will end, and you will have nothing. So, how was school?”
Therapy Dogs opens with a parental lecture. As Justin (the film’s co-writer Justin Morrice) sits awkwardly in the passenger seat, his mother, unseen as though a teacher in a Peanuts comic, harangues him with these words. Justin’s response is to open the door and fling himself from the moving car, so that he ends up supine and bloody in the middle of the suburban street. “Just go on without me,” he tells his annoyed mother (now visible), “I want to lie here for a bit.” It is a sequence that reveals both Justin’s self-destructive impulses, and more broadly his desire, as the cusp of adulthood and responsibility comes barreling towards him, to slow down and hang around, even if just for a bit.
At Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario, Justin teams up with his best friend Ethan (director/co-writer Ethan Eng) to make a film which they pretend is a video for the yearbook committee, although it is really their own ‘secret movie’ intended, as Justin puts it, to “rip off the flesh of this school and see what really makes it tick”. In fact what emerges is a portrait of adolescent ennui, anomie and addlement, with the approaching end of high school having to be faced with the inevitability of death itself.
Certainly Therapy Dogs comes with the strong sense of an ending. The intense homosocial bond between Ethan and Justin – who are otherwise misfits and loners – and all those shots of lost, dreamy kids prowling the school corridors, evoke Gus Van Sant’s Columbine riff Elephant (2003), so that when schoolmate Jayden (Jayden Frost) tells Ethan, “I don’t want to be in your fucking school shooter movie,” he is only saying out loud what many viewers may already have been thinking. Justin and Ethan’s excessive drinking and drug-taking, their dangerous Jackass-style pranks and violent Fight Club-style punch-ups, their self-harming antics, and their obsession with former pupil Tyler who, 12 years earlier, killed himself on the day of his graduation, all suggest that these two teens, despite their film’s breezy pace, are heading somewhere dark – even if that place may only be adulthood itself.
Ethan constantly shoots “the movie you all deserve – the truth about high school” – but mostly captures himself and Justin lolligagging around, tagging walls, suffering pratfalls, invading abandoned properties, getting high (and going to high places), and generally just hanging – and falling – out together. He also often films his friend Kevin (Kevin Tseng), a multi-instrumentalist who, for all his talent, seems as uncertain as Ethan and Justin are about what to do next, and what it all means. That feeling of uncertainty pervades the film, bathing everything in melancholy. The lilting score of Sam Ray (Ricky Eats Acid, Teen Suicide) certainly adds to the wistful vibe.
In one sequence, an organisation visits the school getting teenagers to contribute to a professional road safety campaign by delivering scripted lines into their camera phones. “Ok, one more time with that, just a little bit more authentic,” the director tells a pupil who is obviously, openly amused by the artifice of it all. By contrast, Eng’s film is a marvel of authenticity. Even as he captures several of the pupils’ awkward performances for their drama class, once they are off-stage they come across as entirely real and candid, as though Therapy Dogs were more fly-on-the-wall guerrilla documentary than fictive feature (the suspicion remains that it is a bit of both, although it is not always easy to disentangle where the reality ends and the fiction begins).
“I wonder if things were any different back then,” Ethan says of the suicide Tyler. They do not seem to have been. Tyler’s own video from over a decade earlier is shown to be remarkably similar to the one that Ethan is shooting, with only the names, identities and fashions of the participants changed. Here adolescent experience is both universal, and fleeting – and Eng has crafted an elegiac if vibrant record of its passing.
strap: Ethan Eng’s faux senior-high yearbook video captures rites of passage as a fleeting, melancholic descent into the void
© Anton Bitel