Lawn Dogs doesn't start with the words "Once upon a time," but it might as well. The film is a fairy tale, plain and simple--and if you argue that this is nothing more than a clever way to say the symbolism and plot points are terribly tired, you won't get any protests from me.
But with Australian (by way of Britain) director John Duigan at the helm, you would hope that some surprises would turn up. After all, Duigan is probably best known in America for giving us a pleasantly plump but still very much nude Elle MacPherson in the passably stylistic flesh-dream Sirens, and a passably good Jon Bon Jovi as a stylistic leading man in the pleasant enough The Leading Man. Duigan also is the man behind two great coming-of-age character films, The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting. Both captured strong performances by a youthful Noah Taylor, the adolescent David Helfgott in Shine, and, in the case of the latter film, one of Nicole Kidman's best performances.
Therefore, a film about the "misunderstood" friendship between a precocious pre-teen and a handsome 21-year-old lawn boy might have some fresh legs under it.
And indeed it does--for a while. The film wades in and out of the divergent pools of stylized suburban satire and Southern Gothic eccentricities, and, at the end, even magic realism. Unfortunately, Lawn Dogs never gets more than ankle deep in any of it.
The film opens with 10-year-old Devon Stockard (Mischa Barton) entertaining herself with the story of Baba Yaga, a witch from Russian folklore who likes to gnaw on sweet little girls. Devon lives in Camelot Gardens, a gated community of prefab two-story homes and pristine sprawling lawns in Louisville, Kentucky--a kingdom seemingly perfect for a princess like herself of upper-middle class, if not regal, birth. But Devon has no interest in being a little princess. Having faced a life-threatening heart condition and undergone an equally serious operation to fix it, she's bored with her safe surroundings and can't relate to kids her own age, who, as she puts it, smell of TV.
Instead, she turns time and again to her scary folktales. When her parents send her out to sell the most cookies in her Young Rangers troop so she can get her picture in the paper, she seizes the opportunity against her parents' explicit warnings not to stray beyond the safe walls of Camelot Gardens. Devon heads straight into the dark Kentucky woods, leaving a trail of gingerbread man-shaped cookies behind her, spinning her Baba Yaga tale as she goes. And what should she stumble upon in the clearing in the middle of the forest? No, not Baba Yaga's house. Rather, the simple trailer home of Trent Burns, the "lawn dog" who cuts the grass and trims the trees for Camelot Gardens residents at $40 a pop.
From there, the film focuses on the blossoming of the obviously unlikely friendship of Devon and Trent. The dramatic tension hinges on the even more obvious dangers a friendship between a poor young adult male and a well-to-do pre-teen girl suggests. Gratefully, the characters of Devon and Trent are mesmerizing. Unfortunately, the dramatic tension, not unlike a fairy tale, is juvenile at best.
As Devon, Mischa Barton keeps a delicate balance between the contradicting qualities of a little girl who is wise beyond her years but still unable to grasp the reality of the adult world. She can be both the daredevil adventurer, eager to steal a chicken, butcher it, and cook it herself--once she's shown how--and the over-sentimental child who dotes on a pet Doberman that has a nasty hatred for kids. She can be crass one minute, then dainty the next, and finally full of goofy wonder without ever falling out of character. Current indie pin-up boy Sam Rockwell (Box of Moonlight) injects Trent with a subtle complexity and smoldering charisma. Trent has a penchant for dropping trou and diving bare-assed off a heavily trafficked bridge into a river for refreshment, or bedding down one of Camelot Gardens' more attractive college co-eds without knowing her name. Yet, as played by Rockwell, there's never any doubt about the sincerity of the puppy dog-like friendship he has with Devon. It stands to reason they'd share an innocent friendship. After all, we, as an audience, like both of them. Why wouldn't they like each other?
Refreshingly, the Lolita-ish overtones come solely from Trent's awareness of how inappropriate their relationship may seem to others, a point backed up by the erroneous conclusions that the adults of Camelot Gardens jump to. As Devon explains to Trent after she asks him to look at the enormous scar from her heart surgery running down her chest, she doesn't want him to look at her tits. She doesn't even have tits yet, silly.
But silly is exactly the way the inhabitants of Camelot Gardens are portrayed. Everyone is a snob on some level, either blind to the seediness churning in their own well-manicured lifestyles or quick to project their fears on poor working stiffs like Trent. Maybe the Camelot Gardens residents are played so stiffly in order to capture the caricatures of fairy tales. Maybe it's for a satiric unreality reminiscent of the opening of Blue Velvet. Maybe it's just to present the world from Devon's point of view. Whatever the reason, it doesn't work the way it could. Of course, there are a few baubles to relish. Christopher McDonald (most familiar to TV viewers as Kirstie Alley's ex, Bryce, on Veronica's Closet) as Devon's father provides the most delightfully menacing moment in the film. During a backyard barbecue scene, he invites Trent in and then singles him out as an outcast, barraging him with subtle and then plainly vicious remarks.
Meanwhile, Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13) turns Devon's mom into a deviant June Cleaver by sending one of the area college boys under her summer dress to toss her salad as she finishes the one for the cookout. But these flashes of ingeniousness wilt and die from underexposure.
The scenes between the Camelot Garden residents and Trent grow increasingly generic. The heavy-handed lifting up of the unpolished--at times brutal, but still good, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people--while casting the rich as ignorant, classist, and perhaps downright evil, becomes simply annoying. By the time Trent takes Devon to his parents' home, and we learn that he sends money home to his dying father, a Korean War veteran, any high steps the film had are long gone, replaced by saccharine melodrama. And that's before "Knocking on Heaven's Door" swells up on the soundtrack.
From there it's the predictable run of misunderstandings and cheap sentimentality ending in violence. A late dash of magic realism as the Baba Yaga story comes to life is too little, too late.
Ultimately, Lawn Dogs may be a fairy tale, but it's still a movie for adults. Devon may not understand, but we are already well-versed in the idea that some people own lawns and some people mow lawns, and rarely are those people the same. There's no reason to dumb it down for the audience. There's no need to treat us like children.
Directed by John Duigan. Written by Naomi Wallace. Starring Sam Rockwell, Mischa Barton, Christopher MacDonald, and Kathleen Quinlan. Opens Friday.
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