Ethan Eng’s debut feature THERAPY DOGS is an astonishingly inventive blend of documentary and drama exploring the high school experience. Dazzling editing and an innovative blend of styles and tones make up this authentically Gen Z film that highlights the inventiveness of the next generation of filmmakers.
“You have to change,” says an unseen figure to a young man idly fiddling with the controls for a car’s automatic windows. As the figure continues with the same clichés about growing up after high school and how these good times with friends won’t last forever, the young man opens the door and throws himself out of the moving car. From this striking opening, THERAPY DOGS firmly opposes the usual clichés about high school life and establishes its embrace of the anarchic and unexpected.
The film continues as a jubilant montage of scenes filmed during the last year of high school for the film’s two writers, Eng and Justin Morrice. It’s a dizzying blend of high-quality professional camerawork and the jerky handheld quality of cinéma vérité, which perfectly suits the weird combination of truth and fiction, documentary and drama. There are party scenes, drug-taking and street fighting, behind-the-scenes footage of a slick PSA against drunk driving, Go-Pro-esque footage of urban exploration, a montage of Google Street View images, and a lot of footage of JACKASS-style physical stunts (like jumping off a railway bridge into a river or being strapped on top of a moving car). The effect replicates the high school experience, where you’re never sure of the norms of this world, and consistency feels like a hard thing to grasp.
“The narrative that emerges through the mélange of scenes is the narrative of growing up, falling out with friends, and drifting apart: the transition between the strange subculture of high school and the work beyond.”
Insofar as there is a narrative, it’s a light touch story about Eng and Morrice purportedly making a yearbook video but actually making a secret guerrilla filmmaking movie that reveals the truth about high school. The narrative that emerges through the mélange of scenes is the narrative of growing up, falling out with friends, and drifting apart: the transition between the strange subculture of high school and the work beyond.
“THERAPY DOGS is dazzlingly innovative filmmaking from incredible young talents opening up a subculture that most of us have long since left behind.”
Underneath this light narrative and the anarchic physical stunts are strong themes about the social anomie of Anglo-American suburbia and the universal shared horror of adolescence. The teenagers in the film are on a knife-edge of maturity: mature enough to be creative and express themselves but not to have full control over their emotions and desires. The driving force behind their recklessly chaotic lives is boredom and a sense of social detachment. This idea is best expressed by a monologue over Google Street View footage talking about using Google Maps to explore beyond the small suburbs they’ve lived in their whole life. They could be born and die in the same place, and they ponder about the world beyond their narrow confines.
THERAPY DOGS is dazzlingly innovative filmmaking from incredible young talents opening up a subculture that most of us have long since left behind. It’s as if JACKASS had a serious narrative just under the surface about fractured relationships and the pains of adolescence, and it’s no less important for being immature. “I don’t really know where I’m going after this,” says Eng in the film’s final moments.