Tag Archives: Mischa Barton

Lawn Dogs (1997, John Duigan)

There’s a lot going on in Lawn Dogs. Lots of good things, lots of strange things, lots of bad things; the worst is probably housewife Kathleen Quinlan’s lover molesting her daughter, Mischa Barton. The film doesn’t want to deal with it. Lawn Dogs is lots of visual splendor, courtesy director Duigan and cinematographer Elliot Davis–set in a affluent Kentucky subdivision–and the film uses that visual splendor and the film’s general quirkiness to pivot away from ever dealing with the more difficult elements. On one hand, the story needs it to maintain its lyrical quality. On the other, it means there’s only so far the film can get.

Because even though it’s from ten year-old Barton’s perspective, it’s filtered. Barton knows what’s going on with mom Quinlan and the late teenage lover, David Barry Gray, but never shows how that knowledge affects her. She gets around to telling her parents–Christopher McDonald is the dad–about it, only to recant because Gray’s father is more affluent than McDonald and McDonald’s got political ambitions; Barton then recants. For a moment, Quinlan is about to become more than a precisely performed caricature and then Lawn Dogs drops that idea. McDonald only gets some depth at the very end, so it’s exactly disappointing but it’s a definite decision Duigan and writer Naomi Wallace are making with the narrative distance. These people are pushed back. Barton’s closer, Sam Rockwell–as the neighborhood lawn mower and Barton’s secret buddy (Rockwell’s twenty-one)–is closer. But McDonald and Quinlan? They’re so far back and so two dimensional and played for such dark humor, they don’t even cast shadows.

At the start of the film, Barton–who’s recovering from two open heart surgeries and being a social pariah before the family moved back to Kentucky for McDonald’s political ambition–happens across Rockwell’s trailer. He runs her off, she keeps coming back. Eventually he relents and allows himself to be befriended. The film is split, mostly, between Barton and Rockwell. While Barton gets a lot of time but not a lot of insight (she’s ten after all and living partially in a fairytale of her own mental construction), Rockwell gets a little less time but there’s the insight. It’s subtle, but it’s clear. Wallace’s script makes sure–without exposition–Rockwell’s character is clear. The most efficient aspects come when it’s how the rich people treat Rockwell, the subtle ways they humiliate him and, in some cases, objectify him. And his poverty. There’s a lot about class in Lawn Dogs, even if Barton’s too young to really understand it and Rockwell’s not going to talk about it. It’s quietly devastating; he wants to protect her from the damage she does with her privilege. She’s ten, after all.

Bruce McGill is the subdivision rent-a-cop. He’s worked his way up; not enough to live in the subdivision, but enough to crap all over Rockwell every chance he gets. McGill’s got the third best part in the film. He’s just pretending to be a caricature so he can fit in with the rich people.

The film hints at a timeline–Barton’s got her last heart doctor checkup–but doesn’t stick to it. It’s about she and Rockwell’s friendship and how the discovery of it destroys lives. Along the way, there’s a bit of fun, a lot about how living with crappy parents McDonald and Quinlan weighs on Barton (even if she can’t express it), and then some about Rockwell. There’s this vignette, completely separate from the rest of the film, where they visit his parents–Beth Grant and Tom Aldredge–in a mobile home park.

From the first shot of the park, it’s clear this lower working class existence is far more rewarding than the sterile perfection of the subdivision. Kids playing, for instance. In the subdivision, there’s only this one other kid–Miles Meehan–who’s younger than Barton and an already accomplished sociopath. The interlude with Grant and Aldredge, which deepens Rockwell’s back story without actually informing his character at all, is fantastic stuff. It just doesn’t much matter to the rest of Lawn Dogs because even if Barton gets to see Rockwell’s soul laid bare… she can’t really understand it. She’s ten.

One of the film’s greatest successes–of the actors, the direction, and especially the script–is never to make Rockwell and Barton’s friendship creepy. Rockwell’s character is aware of its inappropriateness, but he’s filled with (a previously unknown ability to capacity for) compassion for Barton. Meanwhile Barton has cast Rockwell in her mental fairytale, though his role keeps changing. Though the fairytale thing is really only first and third act. It doesn’t keep up through the second, which is too bad. At least in Barton’s understanding of her life through the fairytale’s lens, there’s some effort to show her understanding.

The acting from the leads is great. Rockwell’s better, obviously, because some of Barton’s performance is just about being a naive kid. It doesn’t always need a lot. Duigan and editor Humphrey Dixon edit the performances to maximum effect. It’s not so much Barton is wise beyond her years than Rockwell isn’t wise enough for his own. They’re wonderful together.

Good music from Trevor Jones; he toggles ably the cockeyed modern fairytale, the yuppie condemnation, the rural poverty, and the working class redemption. Again, there’s a lot going on in Lawn Dogs and–at the very least–Rockwell and writer Wallace (and McGill) get it. Even if Duigan wants to avoid it by doing some gorgeous composition with cinematographer Davis. The film’s gorgeous and quirky and intentionally distracted from itself.

The other supporting performances–Eric Mabius as Gray’s friend and a rich boy with an illicit crush on Rockwell, as well as Angie Harmon as a rich girl having an illicit affair with Rockwell–are good. Gray’s the weakest performance in the film, but also the thinest part. He’s just a dangerous predator.

McGill is really good. He gets overshadowed, sure–and rightly, Barton and Rockwell are great–but he’s really good.

Lawn Dogs is an accomplishment. Just could’ve been more of one if Duigan and Wallace wanted to deal with the tougher issues they raise instead of avoid them.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Duigan; written by Naomi Wallace; director of photography, Elliot Davis; edited by Humphrey Dixon; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Duncan Kenworthy; released by The Rank Organisation.

Starring Mischa Barton (Devon Stockard), Sam Rockwell (Trent Burns), Christopher McDonald (Mr. Stockard), Kathleen Quinlan (Mrs. Stockard), Bruce McGill (Nash), Eric Mabius (Sean), David Barry Gray (Brett), Angie Harmon (Pam), Beth Grant (Mrs. Burns), and Tom Aldredge (Mr. Burns).


RELATED

Advertisements

The Oh in Ohio (2006, Billy Kent)

Short movies–under ninety minutes–are having a creative resurgence of late. I’m thinking primarily of Ed Burns’s Looking for Kitty as the model (and it was well under ninety), but The Oh in Ohio is another fine example. The way the filmmakers keep Ohio short is very interesting. They end the movie during the last five or six minutes of the second act. There is no third act. There’s a lot of suggestion to what might be coming in the third act, even foreshadowing to a pleasantly surprising, comedic ending, but it isn’t in the film. There are a handful of fade-to-black scene transitions and when the last one came, I was not expecting the film to end. It was a deft–a term I’ve only used one other time here on The Stop Button–unexpected narrative move and nothing in The Oh in Ohio prepared me for it.

There’s very little in the way narrative drive–there’s an abject lack of conflict after the first act–and I kept waiting for a crisis needing resolution and one never arrived. In some ways, the film summarizes instead of plays out in scene, but has enough solid scenes going to give the illusion they’re where the most important events are playing out. Or it might not be deft and the screenwriters just got lucky. Either way, it’s interesting because for a narrative to play out in the traditional structure only to stop, canceling its traditional trajectory, raises a lot of questions about where a story should in terms of creating the fullest experience. The Oh in Ohio could have tacked on another fifteen to twenty-five minutes and it would never have ended quite as well. Because romantic comedies–and The Oh in Ohio is a romantic comedy–tend to have their own pattern and they don’t do it for narrative quality but because romantic comedies really only have seventy or eighty minutes worth of story and they need push it so people won’t dismiss them for running under ninety (or ninety-five, ninety-five sounds more respectable still). So The Oh in Ohio shows cutting and closing sooner, on a high point, might be the way to go. I can think of one or two romantic comedies right now with too long endings, where cutting earlier would have worked better.

Other than its narrative innovation (or possible innovation, I’ll check with the patent office), The Oh in Ohio’s got Parker Posey and she’s excellent, but it’s also got a great Paul Rudd performance. Rudd frequently disappoints, but not in this film. Danny DeVito’s good, so is Keith David. Liza Minnelli has a fantastic cameo.

The laugh-out-loud comedy scenes mix well with the not-laugh-out-loud ones and there’s still the traditional narrative going on to hold things together. I also use the word “quirky” sparingly (though, apparently, three times to date), but The Oh in Ohio is a quirky film and I feel like I shouldn’t have had to remember on my own. Someone else should have been talking about it.*

* I have a feeling they were not, because when I went to go to look for DVD reviews, I found four. Apparently, the superstars at HBO Home Video decided to pan and scan the Panavision frame to an HD-friendly 1.85:1, which really bothered me during the scenes when the framing was so obviously off–like when a car drove off frame but was still audible and the scene didn’t cut until it had time to traverse (out of frame, obviously) the rest of the shot.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Billy Kent; screenplay by Adam Wierzbianski, from a story by Sarah Bird, Kent and Wierzbianski; director of photography, Ramsey Nickell; edited by Paul Bertino and Michael R. Miller; music by Bruno Coon; production designer, Martina Buckley; produced by Miranda Bailey, Francey Grace and Amy Salko Robertson; released by Cyan Pictures.

Starring Parker Posey (Priscilla Chase), Danny DeVito (Wayne the Pool Guy), Miranda Bailey (Sherri), Paul Rudd (Jack Chase), Keith David (Coach Popovitch), Tim Russ (Douglas), Mischa Barton (Kristen Taylor), Liza Minnelli (Alyssa Donahue), Robert John Burke (Binky Taylor) and Heather Graham (Justine).


RELATED