Peggy, how are you gonna find a boyfriend if you keep shacking up with dogs?
— Layla (Regina King)
Pencil is a beagle. As he plays with his friends in the dog park, his mom Peggy (Molly Shannon) gazes on him with delight and devotion, her smile so wide and bright it’s nearly painful. In this scene and the brief montage of daily life that follows — wherein Peggy drives with Pencil in her lap, sleeps with him in her bed, and leaves him looking forlorn at her front gate while she goes to work — the framing feels uncommonly plain: close, squared up, still. It’s as if Peggy exists inside a series of portraits.
This framing remains much the same throughout Year of the Dog, Mike White’s directorial debut. But even as the look makes Peggy’s life appear straightforward, her feelings are complex, odd, and oddly compelling. Initially, she sees herself as buffeted by circumstances, making the best of limits, finding affection and a kind of commitment in Pencil. She keeps photos of the beagle on her mantles at home and desk at work, where she’s an assistant to the fiercely ambitious, terminally fidgety Robin (Josh Pais). As he presses her for moral support and praise when he feels overlooked for a raise, she smiles tightly and the camera cuts methodically between the two of them. Oh yes, she agrees, “You are the number one seller. Maybe not this year, but not so long ago.”
The exchange is brief and bracing. As chipper and compliant as Peggy appears, she also maintains just a bit of an edge. While Year of the Dog‘s studied distance from its protagonist occasionally tips toward disapproval, she’s elusive, somewhere between sympathetic and pathetic, resistant and desperate. Unlike the usual movie character, who comes with viewer response signposts, the perplexity embodied and indicated by Peggy is refreshing.
This perplexity works all ways. While Peggy ponders her own situation — her loneliness and vague ache — she’s mystifying to those who surround her. But even as she’s a puzzle in need of solving, she doesn’t present a case for urgency: no one seems in a rush to help her, feel close to her, or lose a bit of their own sleep in order to soothe her. Brother Pier (Tom McCarthy) and his passive-aggressive control freaky wife Bret (Laura Dern) greet her at their home with a kind of efficient tolerance. As Peggy sits primly on a sofa directly opposite her pastel-costumed relatives, they fill up the time with chatter about their own lives. Peggy always brings presents for little Lissie (Amy Schlagel) and baby Benji (Bret sniffs a stuffed baby seal to ensure it holds no allergens) as well as grand displays of self-involvement by the parents (they don’t ask after Peggy or Pencil, only natter on about the lice afflicting Lissie’s first grade classmates).
Similarly, Peggy’s best friend at work, Layla (Regina King), spends their lunch hours telling Peggy about her troubles with her boyfriend Don (Dale Godboldo). Is he going to marry her? Is he cheating on her? “I think he makes me feel insecure,” moans Layla, “He told me my nails look like I’ was trying to claw my way out of a well.” Peggy glances at them, and they are sensational. As is Layla, teetering on the verge of stereotype as she click-clacks across the office floor, coming to peer into Peggy’s cubicle, but she’s also Regina King, utterly convincing, passionate, and specific, as always. She’s as close to a human Best Friend as Peggy might manage, who keeps her focus on Pencil, bedmate, dinner companion, light of her life.
And then Pencil dies. A monumental tragedy in the scheme of Peggy’s things, the event is also perversely mundane: a digger and hunter by beagle nature, he ends up in her neighbor Al’s (John C. Reilly) yard one evening, poisoned. Mustering herself, Peggy fights back tears as she looks down on Pencil’s panting body, his last little breaths eeping out as his glassy eye barely sees her. She drives him to the vet’s, where he dies and she meets Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a local ASPCA worker and organizer, a dedicated vegan, and a wholly strange bird. He takes an interest in Peggy, seeing in her a vaguely kindred spirit, who cares deeply about animals. He waits an appropriate few days following Pencil’s demise, then asks her to take in another dog he knows of, a troubled, galumphy German shepherd named Valentine.
The new dog marks the change in Peggy’s life: Newt warns her that he has “some behavioral issues,” which doesn’t begin to describe the disruption he brings. As graceless and uneven as Pencil was tidy and consistent, Valentine tries Peggy’s hard-won patience and yet she loves him earnestly and willfully, while at the same time she steps out — tentatively — in search of romance. After an evening with Al, she’s put off by his loudly professed love of hunting (“You know, but it don’t know, it’s its last moment and you’re gonna take it”), but she remains intrigued by Newt, whose gentleness seems genuine. She adopts his activism regarding lost animals, stops eating meat and starts drinking soy milk (much to Bret’s visible disdain), and seeks homes for doggies, going so far as to match a fluffy “Maltese mix” with Layla, a bad idea if ever there was one.
As the puzzle of Peggy becomes more profound, the film sustains its distance from her. You sort of understand her, but you also don’t. Babysitting Lissie, she determines the child must not only visit with rescued chickens and goats, but also that she should witness a killing floor: “This place is heaven,” Peggy says of the peaceful farm, “But there is a hell just up the road. You need to see it. They don’t tell you what happens to Babe in real life.” It’s a sharply comic, brutal, and alarming moment, the child’s eyes wide with fear and trust, Peggy determined to save the girl from her own perpetual letdown by destroying Lissie’s innocence here and now. She’s right and wrong at the same time — and she knows it too.
Observing Peggy’s neediness and yet never quite pitying her, the brightly colored, simple-seeming compositions of Year of the Dog suggest a kind of cartoonish tone. But even as the movie walks close to the patronizing line that makes David Byrne’s True Stories (1986) so uncomfortable, it doesn’t ask you to judge Peggy. In fact, White’s film displays a peculiar but plain love for her. On one hand, you might admire Peggy’s reserves of strength, generosity, and commitment. On another, you might understand her efforts to lie to herself, to survive her days alone.
“I’ve always been disappointed by people,” she tells the disappointing Newt, revealing, succinctly and angrily, her lifelong grief even as she articulates what seems a last line of defense: if she expects nothing, she’ll remain inviolate. But Peggy is surprising, and as she comes to see herself, Year of the Dog is too.