They are just a couple of strays.
One doesn’t have much of a future. The other doesn’t even have a name.
But then man meets dog, and each one finds a purpose.
That’s a quick sketch of The Year of the Dog, a simple, and often simply powerful movie about addiction and recovery. Except sometimes the addiction isn’t just to alcohol but to despair. And the recovery comes, not just from quitting one obsession, but replacing it with something a lot healthier.
When we first meet Matt, he’s an alcoholic who has finally notched 48 hours without a drink – only because he punched a bartender, knowing it would bring him two days in jail, where he couldn’t get one. (“That was my recovery plan,” he wryly confesses at an AA meeting.)
Staying sober isn’t going to be easy – even with the remote Montana cabin his sponsor has loaned him. But then Matt meets another misfit, an undersized Husky with a gentle heart. (The dog breaks into a chicken coop, just to cuddle with the birds.)
And the two strays form a bond, and set their eyes on a goal.
The Year of the Dog combines two old tropes – the Recovery Story, and the Dog That Changed My Life Story – and it observes the usual rules. As in all tales of addiction, there’s a tragedy that threatens to undo all that hard-won sobriety; as in all lovable dog stories, there’s a veterinary crisis that threatens to send you reaching for your Kleenex.
But The Year of the Dog navigates the cliches, largely on the strength of the performance by star Rob Grabow (who also wrote and co-directed). And, partly, on its willingness to push in some different directions. The wintry Montana setting is one pleasant change; a largely Indigenous cast is another.
Even when a cliché does pop up, it’s handled with quiet believability. There’s a love interest, but it’s played as a story of a friendship between adults. There’s a sled-dog competition that Matt decides to enter, but a low-stakes, small-town kind of thing, where the point is the contest, not the prize.
Grabow is a solid actor, but sometimes it feels as if he’s not letting us in on all the backstory he’s clearly created for this character. His estrangement from his family and friends, his 15 years of alcoholism – those are just alluded to, without elaboration. There’s never a simple answer to why someone goes off the rails, but it’d be helpful if Grabow’s script at least provided a few questions worth pursuing.
Still, the movie connects on some pure, and primal levels. And it has a charmer in Caleb, the rescue dog who plays its beautiful, bright-eyed star. What a good boy. What a simple, sweet film.