Sunday, September 4, 2011

Family film "find" -- Bryan Michael Stoller's FIRST DOG harks back to kinder times

Normally TrustMovies wouldn't spend time watching straight-to-video* family films because there are just too many other important genres (and the films that inhabit them) to keep up with. That said, he's awfully glad he took a chance on FIRST DOG, a movie about America by Canadian filmmaker Bryan Michael Stoller (shown below) that comes down four-square in favor of the good stuff: adoption (of children and pets), doing the right thing, and a U.S. President who offers -- unlike both the current and immediately preceding resident of The White House -- something more than repeated lies to the American people. "Say one thing, do another" is not the operative position for the particular movie President shown here.

That President is played, in nice style -- with a winning combination of formality, decency and warmth -- by Eric Roberts (below), and although the film he's in, due no doubt to lack of a big budget, must cut corners on everything from extras to rehearsal time, still manages to tell its simple, even a bit simplistic tale well enough to hold the interest of kids from, say, 5 to 12 -- while offering enough of those eternal verities to hook their parents, too. The whole movie, in fact, appears to take place in a alternate universe in which we recognize the players -- Prez, First Lady, bodyguards and such -- yet the events (the opening of a school named after the President, the lack of security, the ability of our little-boy hero to outrun the secret service) hark back to a more gullible time when "innocence" trumped snark.

The tale told here is one of an unhappy orphan named Danny (Jean-Paul Howard, below) who stumbles upon the "lost" dog of the U.S. President and then spends the  rest of movie trying to get the dog back home.

At around the 30-minute mark, the film becomes a road movie with a number of relatively interesting characters introduced along the way, including a truck driver (played by Tommy "Tiny" Lister, below, right),

a group of country musicians, a kindly waitress, and a couple of oddballs (played by Paula Devicq, below and Tim Peyton, above, left)-- one seemingly helpful, the other not.

Even on its low budget, the technical aspects of the film are handled quite well, and the screenplay, though paint-by-numbers, is good enough to hit most of the bases. When violence is threatened, it's low-key and comedic rather than scary, and the life lessons learned by our little hero should only be remembered later on: "She told me I could trust her," the boy laments, "but I guess you can't go by what people say. It's what they do."

The film also features some nice songs written and sung by Dolly Parton, one of which, "Family of Friends" is a keeper. Full of coincidence and overall no great shakes, First Dog is still a nice surprise and an enjoyable experience. It takes you back to better time when lies were not sold as gospel and Presidents actually cared about the environment, humanity (the great lump of it, not just the rich) and even dogs.

Hitting many of the right notes as it bumps along, the film is, as we say, of a piece. Your younger kids will like it, and you yourself may feel the tug of a sad nostalgia while viewing. First Dog -- running time 97 minutes --  is available from Gaiam beginning this Tuesday, September 6, for sale. (Or you can rent it from the usual suspects, Netflix or Blockbuster.)

* I am evidently incorrect about this film going straight-to-video.  According to John Dhabolt of (which is pretty much the source of tracking a film's theatrical-release history), First Dog received some theatrical play via the Harkins Theaters chain in the vicinity of Mesa, Arizona, during the first half of July 2011.


Anonymous said...

Hi James,

Excellent review; I've been in contact with the director and will send him the link to your review. Just a minor correction. It actually played at one of the Harkins theaters (possibly others) in Mesa, AZ for two weeks from July 1st through 14th.

Best regards,

John Dhabolt

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, John. You guys really DO keep up with playdates -- amazing! I appreciate your update and will correct the post forthwith.