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Stray Dog
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by Jay Seaver

"Ride on."
3 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2015: You may have heard of director Debra Granik's previous film, a great backwoods number called "Winter's Bone" that got a bunch of praise and is arguably the foundation for Jennifer Lawrence being as big a star as she is, so it's a bit surprising to see her next feature be this very small-scale documentary; in a lot of cases, one would think, she'd get a chance at something bigger. On the other hand, since she met the subject(s) of this movie on the set of that one, maybe making this her next project felt like a more natural next step than trying to grab some studio job.

This movie is focused on Ronnie "Stray Dog" Hall, a Vietnam veteran and biker who operates a trailer park in Branson, Missouri. He's a pretty good dude, letting tenants who are down on their luck slide, learning Spanish to better communicate with his wife Alicia and her sons (19-year-old twins still residing in Mexico City), and taking part in a lot of commemorative programs and rides. He's a big-hearted guy, whether he's around family, friends, strangers, or the for small dogs who live in his house.

Being generous of spirit does not make him uncomplicated; an early session with his therapist drops a bit of information that will certainly stick in the audience's head through the rest of the movie, even if Granik never really returns to it. It's one of several things we observe about Hall that intrigues, even if it is in large part built out of how Granik emphasizes things: That scene is isolated, while a relatively uninterrupted string of scenes that focus on him attending events memorializing the Vietnam War are almost fatiguing. A viewer may get restless, finding it almost sad that Hall's life has never moved beyond that point. That's not necessarily what one thinks of as good editing, but bogging down here is useful, driving home just how large that experience looms in a veteran's life.

It also works as a nice springboard for other scenes, whether visiting a Gulf War casualty's mother or Hall's daughter and granddaughter from his first marriage. The actual events in these scenes are often small, and they don't necessarily reveal surprising things, but there's something fresh about seeing them on-screen. Folks scraping by in the heartland, trying to live with things that never really leave them, are not represented as these sort of imperfect-but-trying figures often enough. Hall and his friends are not the most desperate and aren't particularly wise, but Granik does a fine job of showing them as decent, obsessing folks workout having to make a point about them.

The not-quite-downside to a documentarian using the editing process to reinforce what she sees rather than build a narrative is that sometimes it leaves her with a fair amount of footage that doesn't quite seem to belong in the movie she's making, even if it is a part of her subject's life. That happens here, with what seems to be the last quarter to third of the movie spending a lot of time on Alicia's sons joining her and Ronnie in Missouri. That in itself would be an interesting movie - a scene where a guy just assumes that living in a trailer outside Branson is all that two fashionable young men from a big city who don't speak much English could possibly want shows just how - but it doesn't really fit in this one. It doesn't feel like Ronnie is responding to a new challenge or like the audience is getting a new perspective on him, and as a result the last act dilutes the film instead of helping it finish strong.

That's a risk when going from fiction to documentary - you can only do so much in terms of keeping the film pointed in a given direction. When the filmmakers manage that, "Stray Dog" is impressive, but that's not all the way to the end.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=26946&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/03/15 03:38:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sun Valley Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sun Valley Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Nashville Film Festival For more in the 2015 Nashville Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.

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Directed by
  Debra Granik

Written by
  Debra Granik

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  (documentary)



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