Mike White knows awkward. As a screenwriter, he’s tackled the subject many times over. Whether focusing on an obsessive man-child (Chuck & Buck
), a wannabe rocker (School of Rock
), or a lonely housewife (The Good Girl
), White’s scripts capture an authentic awkwardness that somehow manages to remain hilarious and heartbreaking all at once. In his directorial debut, White embraces the awkward with the story of a woman and her dog. Peggy (Shannon) just wants to be loved. Floating through life in a boring job with self-obsessed friends and family, Peggy’s only true love comes from her adorable little beagle, Pencil. When Pencil mysteriously dies, Peggy’s sadness is all encompassing. The solution is clear: Get another dog. Dog No. 2 comes via Peggy’s new friend, the surreally dog-obsessed trainer, Newt (Sarsgaard). Through a friendship with Newt, Peggy begins to embrace her love of animals. Converting to veganism, she volunteers at animal shelters and compulsively searches for opportunities to support animal rights. It’s about this point in the film when you’ll sit back and relax, assuming you know more or less what’s going to happen next. But this is Mike White. And this is not a romantic comedy. Peggy does find love, but not how you’d expect. And ultimately, like in the best of movies, things that you want to happen don’t; other unexpected twists cause you to sit up and wonder whether to laugh or cry. In the end, there’s opportunity for a little of both. White’s directing style is gentle, with highly composed symmetry and hardly any camera movement. Giving the actors plenty of time to rest in every moment, he’s clearly a writer first. And thank goodness for that. With authentically funny dialogue, it’s clear that White is far from sequestered in some Hollywood tower. He’s out in the world, listening to people complain about their jobs, their kids, and their pets. And he’s laughing and taking notes. As for the cast, you couldn’t ask for more. Dern is hilarious as the obsessive sister-in-law, Sarsgaard plays oddball dog-man to perfection, Pais is perfectly awkward as Peggy’s nervous boss, Reilly rocks the subtle humor of Peggy’s hunting-obsessed neighbor, and Shannon gives a breakout performance.