Sun Dogs caught me by surprise, in the most wonderful way. I knew the synopsis going into it, obviously, but in no way, shape, or form did I expect to love it as much as I did. At first, I was utterly confused because it’s always been labeled as a comedy – or a dramatic comedy, in this case – which, it is, but the way in which the film begins completely contradicts that genre’s barriers. In a way, that’s what makes the film so great. Throughout the entirety of the movie, the storyline dances on a very thin line between what would be considered comedy and what could potentially be taken as utterly offensive due to its mentions of some considerably serious topics. That constant push and pull between staying within the barriers of the comedy genre and often pushing past those barriers and diving deep into more complex ideas and issues truly gave Sun Dogs a subtle edge I have not witnessed a film having in quite some time.
The audience is first and foremost shown flashes from the September 11th catastrophe, along with clips from what seems like an intense war scene, both of which are not only, on their own, wholeheartedly sensitive subjects but ones that have the potential to cause the entire film to crumble, yet it did quite the opposite and I applaud it for doing that so effortlessly. The underlying themes that run throughout the length of the film are some that genuinely stick with you long after you finish watching it – transformation (both physically and mentally), innocence, sacrifice, selflessness, compassion, acceptance, courage, and that’s barely scratching the surface. The most prominent and definitely the most salient theme that is more and more noticeable the deeper into the story you get, is that, although you may not think so, the smallest of actions can have the biggest impacts on people’s lives and in the world. After finishing the movie, I was left with an overwhelmingly powerful urge to seek out what smaller gestures and actions I could potentially incorporate in my day-to-day life that could, somehow, benefit someone…anyone. And that’s exactly what a great film does. A great film does not just end and leave you entirely satisfied; a great film leaves you hungry for more, it leaves your mind breathless from basking in all of the minuscule details that caused the film to have such a meaningful impact in the first place and Sun Dogs accomplished that and so much more.
Now, here are my thoughts on the more technical aspects of the film, and brace yourselves because I have no official knowledge on the craft, just what has been self-taught, so this part of the review could potentially be disastrous. There is no denying that the cinematic techniques used made the film what it is. Jennifer Morrison’s directing was impeccable. From the seamlessly creative typewriter shots and sounds (my literature loving self completely fell in love with the use of the typewriter) to the use of Ned’s iconic and vibrant blue notecards, and everything in between, the directing style Morrison chose was what lead the film to be as impactful as it was. The music, written and composed by the greatly talented Mark Isham, flowed with the storyline impeccably – almost as if no other soundtrack could have worked for this specific story. Also, I cannot possibly get through this entire review without mentioning Julia Morrison Summers’ song during the ending credits, Not Alone, as it fit the mood so well that it is still hard for me to believe Summers wrote it by simply reading the script. How an artist is able to capture a film’s genuine essence and tone from merely reading a stack of papers either shows just how vivacious the script truly is or how talented the artist is. Or both. In this case, definitely both. The sequence of shots paired with the use of what I felt was a complimentary color scheme (mostly orange and teal tones) allowed the audience to feel connected with Ned’s internal conflict on a whole new level. The cinematography, in general, was stunning, and I am forever blown away by what a powerful duo Michael Lloyd and Jennifer Morrison proved to be. The fact that this 93 minute, cinematically gorgeous film was short in just about 18 days with only 9 days of prep is enough to keep my mind blown away for an entire eternity. Watching it, it is almost impossible to comprehend that they managed to fit in 30 different locations in that short amount of time. I totally and wholeheartedly applaud the team behind Sun Dogs for not only managing but succeeding at such a feat.
There are not enough words to describe just how talented the group of actors are and their chemistry is something you have to watch in order to fully appreciate. Let’s start with our very own Ned Chipley – probably one of the most lovable, unconventional heroes. I could not think of a better person to have portrayed the role of Ned than Michael Angarano. Going back to what I mentioned earlier about the storyline walking on a thin line between being light-hearted and being taken extremely seriously, Ned was the constant source of balance. There were times where a scene dealt with a serious topic, such as suicide or terrorism, and it was hard for me, as an audience member, to figure out what the appropriate reaction should be. But Ned’s always charming personality never failed to pull me back from spiraling too deep into said dire topic and it somehow always ended up with the entire theater laughing out loud at one of his profoundly serious, yet hilariously odd one-liners, such as, “Stay vigilant,” or another one of my favorites, “I have field preparedness.” Due to his mental condition caused during birth, Ned is as smart and alert as they come, but he is unable to comprehend abstract ideas, causing him to have a stern, yet childlike way of viewing the world around him.
Ned Chipley is most definitely a relentless soul and that makes me love him all that much more. Allison Janney as Rose Chipley and Ed O’Neill as Bob Garrity could not have been any more perfect. Rose’s unconditional love and admiration for her son was something that, at times, almost even brought me to tears. Bob, although more exacting when it comes to Ned and his intellectual limitations, truly does love his step-son and at the end of the day, only wants what is best for him. Even though I thought his way of carrying himself around Ned was, at times, perhaps a bit too harsh, everything he did came from the heart and I think that was genuinely noticeable through Ed’s impeccable acting. Talking about Ed, him and Allison’s chemistry was so potent that it is hard for me to believe they have not actually been married 20+ years. Their scenes together were pure magic and it was a joy watching their individual talents feed off of each other. Last but certainly not least, Melissa Benoist as Tally Peterson managed to crawl her way into a very special place in my heart. She’s just so good. Tally’s story broke my heart in inexplicable ways, but her excitement for life and adventure made up for it. Witnessing Ned and Tally’s relationship grow and blossom through the film made my heart so happy and I would be lying if I said their scenes together were not my favorite. Aside from just offering the audience a refreshing contrasting balance to offset Ned’s character, her storyline introduced the most prominent theme that eventually lead to the film’s pivotal ending and profound message of how every action, no matter how small, can have such sizable effects.
Overall, Sun Dogs was a remarkably special film with so much heart and such an important message. After an extremely successful festival run, Sun Dogs is now streaming on Netflix and I highly encourage every single one of you to press play and join the Chipley family.