My Life as a Dog

December 12, 2011

Films about growing up are a staple in moviedom. Particularly in the foreign films that make it to these shores; presumably it’s the universality of the coming-of-age experience that makes it so easily exportable.

Last year it was Canada’s My American Cousin, Hungary’s When Father Was Away on Business, and Denmark’s Twist and Shout. This year’s model is from Sweden: My Life as a Dog.

Like those other films, My Life as a Dog charts familiar territory, but from a distinctive angle. Here the protagonist is a 12-year-old boy named Ingemar, who worries more than most kids his age. He’s constantly getting into innocent jams, fretting over his invalid mother, and is especially troubled by the thought of a poor blameless dog being put in an experimental Soviet space capsule (the film is set in the late ’50s).

But, he reminds himself constantly, it’s best if you force yourself to think about all the terrible things in the world. Then you can put your own problems in perspective.

This wise-beyond-his-years child is carted off to his uncle’s country home when the mother gets too sick to handle him. There he spends an idyllic time learning about soccer, sculpture, and space flight (the latter in a slapdash contraption strung up between a couple of villagers’ houses).

Director Lasse Hallstrom, who appeared with the film at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, doesn’t find much that’s terribly new in the material. But he gives a deeply personal view of those difficult years, immeasurably aided by a glowing lead turn by pooch-eyed Anton Glanzelius. This little guy gives one of those performances that reminds you just how great child actors can be, superior in their unschooled, unmannered way to so many overly trained adult actors.

And Hallstrom has a gift for seeing things in a charming way. The recurring use of a silly record tune, Ingemar’s chronic inability to bring a glass of milk to his lips without spilling half of it, and the climactic use of a radio broadcast of Ingemar Johansson’s boxing victory over Floyd Patterson—all these things build good feeling in simple, soothing ways. Sprinkled across the movie, they provide an experience that is as uninsistent as it is irresistible.

First published in the Herald, June 7, 1987

The movie was a huge hit, and did big business in Seattle, where it was absolutely beloved. Hallstrom got a Hollywood career out of this, and has enjoyed a curious track record thus far but nothing to be ashamed about. Well, maybe Chocolat. Dude also married Lena Olin.