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Lawn Dogs

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Lawn Dogs

Starring: Mischa Barton, Sam Rockwell
Director: John Duigan
Rated: R
RunTime: 101 Minutes
Release Date: May 1998
Genre: Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

They say that the suburbs are the best place to bring up kids, but you've got to wonder sometimes whether that's just an excuse parents use because they want to leave the big city. In screenwriter Naomi Wallace's vision, the suburbs are about the worst place for growing up, and they're not all that great a location for adults either. In her script for "Lawn Dogs," directed by John Duigan, all of the adults to whom we are introduced living in Kentucky's Camelot Gardens are bad news, while the three working-class types who live in a mobile home and what could best be described as an enlarged tin can are salt-of-the-earth good guys.

"Lawn Dogs" is as much a fable as it is a straightforward narrative about a few days in the lives of two unlikely buddies and the circle of people who surround them. Trent Burns (Sam Rockwell) is a twenty-one-year-old guy who lives in a broken-down trailer on the outskirts of Camelot Gardens, mows lawns, and does tree work for the upscale residents of the wealthy but improbably pristine community. His clients include members of the Stockard family: Morton (Christopher McDonald) and his wife Clare (Kathleen Quinlan) whose 10-year-old daughter Devon (Mischa Barton) takes refuge in fantasy. It's not that Devon is abused: quite the contrary. She is patronized by her parents who want her to make friends, and given gentle advice when she goes out to market cookies to the community. Eschewing kids her own age, she becomes pals with the impoverished mower of lawns with whom he shares a common surgical operation and makes daily excursions to his trailer which in her eyes is the retreat of Baba Yaga, a powerful figure in the stories she had heard from her uncle.

While the adventures of these two unlikely friends follow a temperate and routine course for a good deal of the movie, director John Duigan uses a great many opportunities to come on like a contemporary American Bertolt Brecht in his aversion to segments of the upper middle class. The owners of property are as soulless as the acreage they inhabit, using their spare time to razz, torment and otherwise demonstrate their disdain for the working class--whom the hapless Trent represents. At one point, Trent interrupts a backyard steak barbeque to ask Morton for his fee: Morton short-changes him ten dollars, kiddingly pointing out, "I gave you two hot dogs, didn't I?" A snotty blueblood abuses him verbally, asking what Trent expects to do when he grows up...sarcastically suggesting that he take a college major in computer design. Even Nash (Bruce McGill), a security guard who thereby shares a working-class background with Trent, warns the slim and sometimes disdainful lad to clear out of Camelot Gardens by five o'clock each day. Trent is, after all, the sort of person from whom the denizens ran to Camelot Gardens to escape.

By contrast, Trent is a decent fellow who sends what he can from his spare income to his aging parents, particularly since his dad, Jake (Tom Aldredge), lost a lung after being infected by food poisoning during the Korean War. (The U.S. government denied all blame for the tragedy--yet another Brechtian dig at the arrogance of the rich and powerful.)

The central relationship is played out in a predictable style for the most part, though Duigan successfully employs magic realism toward the conclusion of the film, dovetailing the habitual lives of the locals with Devon's favorite fable of Baba Yaga. While Trent is at first unenthusiastic about the unannounced visit of the 10-year-old Devon, he is drawn to her and she to him, the two loners finding comfort with each other amid a circle of uncomprehending, twisted suburbanites. While it does nothing for Devon's emotional health that she discovers her mother in the midst of an affair with a handsome but loathsome college kid, she takes the incident in stride as if to say, "What do you expect from people with no soul?"

The picture, whose funding is provided by the Rank Group (remember the guy who hammers away in slow motion at the gong in the logo?), is targeted to a sensitive audience, the sorts of folks who liked last year's French favorite, "Ma Vie En Rose." Devon's performance stays properly shy of being terminally cute, and despite the stylizations with which the lawn community is photographed, the picture is believable, mildly amusing, and for the right audience is worthy of attention.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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