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by Erik Childress

"A Dwarf Hamster On The Road To Valhalla"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 CINEVEGAS FILM FESTIVAL: A lot of animal-themed movies end with the loss of that pet, but only after submitting us to all the joyous times and wacky shenanigans by said creature. It helps increase the trauma dealt to us while potentially serving as a necessary life lesson for our children. But we were all children once too and I don’t care if you were eight or eighty, the loss of a longtime companion – even one not engaging in human speak – cuts straight to your heart. We don’t need 90 minutes of established identity to tap into that heartbreak that lives with us forever somewhere inside. You can hate everything from Old Yeller to Marley and Me and still produce a sniffle by the end. Writer/director Jeff Mizushima cuts to the chase in Etienne and stretches the final days of one of the smallest of creatures into a lovely journey for him (or her) and the owner who loves it.

Etienne is certainly not an it though. Certainly not to Richard (Richard Vallejos), a quiet chap who takes care of his dwarf hamster probably better than himself. On the eve of his new job at a hotel, Richard discovers that his beloved pet has cancer. Recommended to make an appointment to ease Etienne’s suffering, Richard hits upon the venture to give his furry best friend the best week of his life. Strapping Etienne’s cage to his bicycle, Richard takes an impromptu road trip to show him the world. Or, at least, as far as he can pedal. Along the way he’ll encounter a hippie geologist and a singing duo although keeps missing the mysterious Elodie (Megan Harvey) who may happen to be traveling a similar path – both geographically and emotionally.

Richard and Etienne’s travels are not one of an emotional grind for the audience. Laced with a brand of humor we’re not always sure we should be laughing at, the folks he meets have the obligatory quirks we’ve come to expect on road trip movies (aside from the uber-serious routes from films like The Straight Story and Into the Wild.) The Frenchie hippie has a broad oddness about him (as well as Richard’s roommate) that’s easy to snicker at but Mizushima works in some subtle underscored humor as well including Richard’s perfectly delayed response to a nurse’s suggestion about letting Etienne living out the rest of his/her life.

Also underscored, but certainly never in a soapbox manner, is a view of euthanasia. How far will we allow a loved one to suffer before we finally set them free, literally or spiritually. Especially when the extent of their pain can never be felt and, for our own selfish reasons, could never match our own after they’ve gone or the guilt we possibly carry over making the final decision. On two separate occasions in the film, characters close to Richard say they will “buy him a new one”; ultimately comparing Etienne to that of just another object produced in bulk that can be replaced with a simple trip to the store.

Last year’s Wendy and Lucy told a similar story of loss as Michelle Williams met some dour characters while searching for her dog. Thankfully, Mizushima doesn’t have his lead cry out Etienne’s name nearly as often and he never allows his story to just become a series of locations and silence. Occasionally there is an overcompensation in the dialogue to define the grief being experienced, as in a scene shift to Elodie’s backstory. Through its many coincidences and tendency towards building up hope in our minds, Etienne never finds easy resolutions and gains an emotional closure for the audience. Cliched as it may be to say this is a film about life and not death, Mizushima’s film is more about innocence over cynicism. Letting go not equaling giving up, whether it be a person, a hamster or a broken-down van. A temporary fix, no matter how kooky, is better than none at all in the hopes that we can all move forward without leaving the small things we take for granted behind.

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originally posted: 06/12/09 12:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

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  03-Sep-2010 (NR)



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