My wife Miki is vegan; because of this, 90-95% of my meals are vegan. I have learned to sympathize with her whenever I see a vegan character in a film – rare as they are – because they're usually depicted as pretentious, misguided, and annoying. Sure, some vegans are all of these things, but they're not doing the world any harm, and I'm tired of seeing them be the butt of lame jokes told by my fellow omnivores.
It was thus with keen anticipation that we saw writer/director Mike White's Year of the Dog, knowing not only that some of its characters are vegan, but that White himself is vegan – Miki and I have seen him dining, often alone, at a local vegan restaurant on several occasions.
The downside of being familiar with White's own dietary choices is that my perceptions were biased about what is ultimately an ambiguous film.
The story concerns Peggy (Molly Shannon, whose depths as an actor come as a real surprise after her Saturday Night Live shtick), a horribly lonely executive assistant in a soul-sucking office whose only joy in life comes from her little dog Pencil. When Pencil suddenly dies, a friendship with a vegan animal hospital worker (Peter Sarsgaard) inspires Peggy not only to become vegan herself, but to travel down an increasingly unhinged path of animal rights activism.
Those expecting a frothy comedy filled with cute little puppies will surely be disappointed by Year of the Dog, but it is a timely, highly original story that discusses things that most American films avoid. Not just animal activism and veganism, but the paths that some lost souls take in order to give their lives a purpose, whether it's misguided or not. This could have been an inflammatory, more divisive film, had it been about Peggy's journey into the Pro-Life movement, militant Islam, or even evangelical Christianity. That White chooses a cause close to his own heart makes Year of the Dog a highly personal and even personally revealing film. (The story was inspired by White's own search for self after the death of his cat.)
Whether most moviegoers will sense any of this is doubtful; mostly I fear people will go to the film expecting something along the lines of Must Love Dogs, and will squirm in their seats as Peggy shoves animal rights down the throats of everyone around her, including the audience. This, then, is the true return of the Mike White who wrote (and starred in) the discomfiting Chuck & Buck, after several years of writing frothy Jack Black vehicles (School of Rock, Nacho Libre, et al).
I didn't think much of this film after it was over – I felt it ended abruptly, needed a third act, and I wondered if White was pushing his own vegan agenda on viewers. But its ambiguity has grown on me, and now I'm rather thrilled that a film this unusual could get a theatrical release.