I mean no impertinence when I say that as a portrait of love and grief, writer-director Mike White’s exceptional film Year of the Dog deserves the same admiration accorded Joan Didion’s exceptional memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. True, Didion’s crystalline prose describes the author’s sense of widowhood following the death of her husband, while White’s fearlessly uncomfortable movie describes the pain of a fictional singleton named Peggy (Molly Shannon) following the death of her pet beagle, Pencil. But the depth of loss felt by Peggy for Pencil is expressed with observations just as acute and honest as any in Didion’s lauded account. And an amazing, translucent Shannon is fearless too in exposing Peggy’s naked sadness.
What happens is, when Pencil dies suddenly of toxic poisoning, Peggy falls apart. The contours of her self-protective, solo life as a good office worker, good friend, and good aunt to her brother’s self-involved family can no longer contain her. And when shy attraction to an ambiguously asexual fellow animal lover (Peter Sarsgaard, brilliantly embodying banked male libido) isn’t returned, she goes, honestly, a little crazy; mourning can do that. White’s strength as a writer (The Good Girl, School of Rock) has always been a stubbornly non-judgmental compassion for even the oddest of (human) ducks. Making an untidily fascinating directorial debut, the filmmaker introduces one such stray and gets us to respect her without pity.