Director: Lasse Hallström
Screenplay: Lasse Hallström
Based on a Novel by: Reidar Jönsson
Starring: Anton Glanzelius, Tomas von Brömssen, Anki Lidén, Melinda Kinnaman
Running Time: 101 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I’ve always had a soft spot for coming of age films. I don’t know whether it’s nostalgia for my own childhood or wish fulfilment for what I would have liked to have done back then, but I’ve always enjoyed watching tales of teens on the brink of adulthood, finding themselves through some sort of adventure or crucial experience. I’ve got several favourites, but the one I come back to again and again is Stand By Me. The quotable dialogue, camaraderie between friends and thrill of going off on a ‘mission’ together out in the wilderness all help make it one of my personal all time favourite films. So when Lasse Hallström’s critically acclaimed Swedish coming of age drama My Life as a Dog was offered up to review, I was keen to see if it lived up to the similar films I have a fondness for.
My Life as a Dog centres around and is narrated by Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius), a 12 year old boy living in Sweden in the late 1950s with his older brother and sick mother (Anki Lidén). The two boys get into so much trouble, particularly Ingemar, that their mum is forced to separate them, sending her youngest son to live with his uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen) and aunt Ulla (Kicki Rundgren) far from home. She’s too ill to deal with both herself and their father is abroad with work and doesn’t seem to have the ability or interest to come back. Whilst living with his uncle in a rural town, Ingemar struggles to control his developing teenage hormones. His young mind is confused as to what to do about an attractive local woman who uses him as a defence against an artist making a nude sculpture of her, as well as a sporty tomboy, Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), who falls for him. All the while, he is troubled by the fact that his beloved mother wants to get rid of him and is dying, a fact he pretends to ignore.
My Life as a Dog was a turning point in Lasse Hallström’s career. His early work in Sweden was dominated by ABBA videos and ABBA: The Movie, but My Life as a Dog provided international acclaim and success, which led to his eventual move to the US. He has since developed a reputation for making rather sentimental dramas, often Oscar-baiting type of material, although My Life as a Dog and The Cider House Rules were the only two to get him a nomination for best director. His films occasionally have quirky or dark twists to them though, particularly the unusual What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, so I was hoping My Life as a Dog leaned more towards this end of his oeuvre and I wasn’t disappointed.
There is a sweetness and sentimentality at play here, but the looming spectre of Ingemar’s mother’s impending death and some fairly frank (but lightly portrayed) sexual content prevent this from getting sappy or cloying. With a subtle vein of black humour running throughout, the film has a feel of the sort of indie ‘dramedies’ more prevalent in the early 2000s than back in the mid-80s. Ingemar’s voiceover narration plays a major part in creating this black humour, through his obsession with finding the dark side of news stories. The fate of Laika, the dog sent into space, is one he keeps returning to. Although Laika was celebrated as a sort of hero, it bothers Ingemar that humans sent him up there knowing he wouldn’t come back alive. He sees a reflection of this in his own life, as well as that of his own beloved dog who is sent away elsewhere (to be put down, we find out later) when Ingemar moves in with his uncle.
The young lead performances are satisfying, with Glanzelius providing a likeable anchor to the film, his naivety and inner turmoil naturally portrayed. The relationship between his character and Saga is particularly well done too. Young love like this can be tough to pull off on screen without seeming awkward or forced, but the two have a great chemistry and you want Ingemar to get over his teenage hangups and realise he cares about her.
There’s nothing particularly Earth-shattering about My Life as a Dog, but the film is a sweet, lightly comic and sensitively portrayed coming of age tale. It won’t topple Stand by Me as my favourite film of the genre, but it’s a fine example of one nonetheless.
My Life as a Dog is out on 5th May on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. I saw the DVD version and the picture and sound quality was decent.
Other than the customary trailer, there’s only one special feature of note, Come On Then! (Kom igen, nu’rå!), a 1981 TV film by Hallström about a 35-year-old footballer (played by Swedish pop star Robert Broberg) looking back over his life. It’s a shame there’s nothing about the making of My Life as a Dog, but this is a decent addition to the set at least.