1997, NR, 100 min. Directed by John Duigan. Starring Mischa Barton, Sam Rockwell, Kathleen Quinlan, Christopher McDonald, Bruce McGill, Eric Mabius, David Barry Gray.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 10, 1998
Psychologically one-dimensional and overburdened with heavy-handed yet random symbolism, Lawn Dogs is nevertheless redeemed by its earnest good intentions and the two lovely performances at the center of the movie. Both young Mischa Barton and the destined-for-big-things Sam Rockwell deliver memorable star turns here. They are so engaging that you almost forget the unlikeliness off these characters' friendship, given that she is a precocious 10-year-old girl and he is a 21-year-old ne'er-do-well who mows lawns for a living. Consciously modeled on a Baba Yaga fairy tale, Lawn Dogs begins as young Devon (Barton) is going door-to-door selling her Young Rangers cookies in her sterile suburban neighborhood of Camelot Gardens, a gated community of expensive houses, manicured lawns, and vacant streets. Trent (Rockwell) tends the yards, but he's warned by the community's rent-a-cop to be out of the 'hood by 5pm. Trent lives in a trailer in the nearby woods and Devon decides to walk past the gates and pay Trent a visit. He's smart enough to recognize that even though their budding friendship is platonic, outsiders will have a hard time accepting that truth. We know they are soulmates because early on we see him stopping traffic to dive naked from an inviting bridge and see her climbing out her bedroom window to toss her bedclothes into the night breeze. Lawn Dogs, as well as being a self-conscious fairy tale, is a story about phonies and bullies. Devon's parents (McDonald and Quinlan) are superficial social climbers who are too absorbed with appearances and extramarital affairs to pay full attention to their child. Trent's dad is a broken-down vet trying to give away his American flag collection. The two other Camelot Gardens' residents we meet are the obnoxious college boys (one is diddling Devon's mom and the other has latent feelings for Trent) whose purpose in life seems to be the harassment of Trent. Painfully obvious songs regularly pop up on the soundtrack to offer frequent thematic cues. Throughout his career the British-born director John Duigan has shown an affinity for films about nubile young women and the conflicted men who love them (Flirting, Sirens, Wide Sargasso Sea, and The Journey of August King). Lawn Dogs is aiming for substance with its fairy tale scheme, surrealistically overblown finale, and portentous dialogue (“I don't like kids -- they smell like TV”). But in the end, it only seems like a mess of ingredients in search of a recipe.