Saturday 14 September 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 57. Lawn Dogs

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces and fascinating curios that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Lawn Dogs
Director - John Duigan
Country - USA
Year - 1997
Runtime - 101 minutes

An innocent friendship between a young girl whose family have relocated to a tranquil suburb in Kentucky and a strange outsider who makes a living mowing the lawns of its rich residents is the focus of John Duigan's wonderful fantasy drama, Lawn Dogs. Mischa Barton makes her debut feature film appearance as Devon Stockard, a ten year old girl who is neglected by her parents, Morton (Christopher McDonald) and Clare (Kathleen Quinlan), and forms a bond with twenty-one year old Trent Burns (Sam Rockwell) after she stumbles upon his ramshackle caravan deep in the nearby woods. The Stockards would be horrified if they knew Devon had left the safety of their gated community so Trent returns her home, making sure to drop her at the border of the suburbs so as not to arouse any suspicion from Nash (Bruce McGill), the overzealous police officer who rules over the neighbourhood with an iron fist.

Like American Beauty and Suburbicon, Lawn Dogs holds a magnifying glass up at the inner workings of the American suburb, exploring the notion that all is not well behind the white-washed fences of a seemingly perfect community and its residents who masquerade dark secrets. Where Lawn Dogs differs is in its viewpoint of this unease that bubbles under the surface, as we see the cracks in the facade through the eyes of Devon, whose overactive imagination leads her young mind to retreat into a dream-like fantasy land. Devon takes inspiration from the classic Russian folk tale of the Baba Yaga, a story about an evil witch who dwells in the woods and eats children; applying this fable to her own parallel experiences as she has no friends of her own age to play with. The child-like and caring nature of Trent resounds with Devon and the two outsiders find companionship in an unlikely alliance, even if it exposes them to the inherent dangers that lurk within the model society they both turn their back upon.

Duigan's sharp deconstruction of blissful suburban life starts off as a quirky coming of age tale with shades of black comedy but descends into a tempestuous drama as the hot summer boils up the underlying tensions between Trent and two bored residents, Brett (David Barry Gray) and Sean (Eric Mabius) - who openly flirts with Trent whenever the two are alone. They make fun of Trent's dishevelled appearance and his run-down truck and inadvertently undermine his lawn-mowing services by tending to the gardens of lonely housewives who welcome Brett's lurid advances. The usually calm and composed Trent is pushed to breaking point by these encounters and Rockwell's biting demonstration of this change in his character's demeanour showcases why he was perfect for the role, with his upsetting retaliation causing friction in his friendship with Devon as she ends up in a precarious position. Trent intervenes and inadvertently sets in motion a series of events that provokes further aggression from his antagonists, who are joined by an angry Morton Stockard and a concerned police officer Nash.

As well as bringing a charged emotional depth to his performance Rockwell is the driving force for much of the film's humour; his cheeky grin as he stops traffic to dive naked into a river from a tall bridge after a hard day's work is a revealing scene for Trent, in more ways than one. Innocent nudity is also displayed by Barton in a scene where Devon tosses her clothes out to the wind as she curls up on the roof outside of her bedroom window in another moment of rebellion. These scenes serve to highlight the similarities between the two individuals as they vent their frustrations in ways that upset the status quo and demonstrates that they are not yet shackled by the loss of innocence that has ushered on the repression of others around them.

Barton is utterly delightful as Devon; she is completely believable as the sweet young girl who her parents take her for but equally convincing as the cunning child who tricks them into thinking she is staying at a friend's house overnight when really she is visiting Trent. Devon's occasional flights of fancy remind us that she is still firmly in the realm of childhood, even if her character is often the most mature and grounded of the adults she shares the screen with. Her perfectly natural kinship with Trent is the purest relationship we see, and it is heartbreaking when those who disagree with this union of damaged souls interpret it as something far more sinister, particularly as we are aware of the adulterous actions of those who condemn their friendship.

Lawn Dogs is a funny, frank, and surprisingly insightful take on the all American dream. The elements of a childhood fantasy are integrated incredibly well with the adult themes of deceit and unfulfillment, bringing a coarse but enlightening tone to the proceedings that gives Duigan's voice an imposing pedestal from which to be heard. He has crafted a poignant and touching American drama, which is pretty damn impressive for an Australian film director, and his stance on the trappings of its modern society is as satisfying to behold as a swathe of freshly mowed lawns on a superficially pristine American suburb.

If you take the time to watch Lawn Dogs then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

1 comment:

  1. She fell in love with him, pure and simple. When a girl descends two steps at a time, breathless with excitement upon the mere distant sound of Trent's mower, that speaks volumes.