The Year of the Dog – Movie Review
by Tom Horvath, PhD
The Year of the Dog, a roughly 90-minute film, presents a fictional account of a mid-30s man and his early to middle change process out of alcohol problems. The story begins at the end of day 2. Matt has been released from jail, still experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Over the next several months he experiences various emotional setbacks, and several positive events he has worked to bring about. My interest in this film arose from the fact that the trailer showed Matt arguing forcefully with someone whom I suspected was his AA sponsor. Matt significantly ignores the sponsor’s advice. How open to alternative recovery approaches would this film be?
This indie film, shot in Montana, impressively uses its resources to create a story I expect anyone dealing with alcohol (or other addictive) problems will find enlightening and inspiring. The key driver of Matt’s progress is his relationship with Yup’ik, an Alaskan Huskie Matt meets the first week. Fred, the AA sponsor (and pre-existing friend), orders Matt to ignore Yup’ik: “This dog is stress! You don’t need stress right now!” But Matt viewed Yup’ik differently. Their relationship leads Matt to greater self-knowledge and greater connections with others. Matt and his sponsor nearly part ways but ultimately become closer. Matt becomes able to accept the mentoring of a man who knows Alaskan Huskies and Yup’ik in particular. This mentor helps Matt understand what Matt needs to learn about both Yup’ik and himself. Matt’s concern about his dying mother prompted his embarking on change at the beginning of the story, and that concern is an ongoing component of the story. There is also a softly played and charming romantic sub-plot.
How does Matt change?
Matt attends two AA meetings, and perhaps will attend more. Early in the film, however, he describes his own process of change in 3 steps, almost throwing them in his sponsor’s face: Matt’s steps are rather different than the traditional 12-steps, and Matt’s steps do not involve attending meetings. Nevertheless, AA is portrayed positively. Although the AA community is not as directly involved in Matt’s change process as it might have been, their presence is one foundation for him as he moves forward.
During Matt’s maturation there are several moments of intense anger and impulsivity. We wonder whether he can rebuild the relationships he is damaging (as he has apparently done all his life). At one of his lowest points, he is staring at the beer shelf in the convenience store.
By the end of the movie, I was not much focused on thoughts about alternative recovery approaches. Matt had forged his own change process. AA has a minor but significant role in that process. His sponsor played an even more significant role, but more as a fellow human than as a sponsor. The sponsor relationship was thus far from a traditional one, and both participants are changed by it. Will other AA groups and sponsors be as flexible as the ones shown in the film? Maybe not, but it is good to see a plausible example of that flexibility.
I hope that in time the SMART Recovery community will have the same stability and presence that we see in AA in this film. Matt gets taken (somewhat grudgingly) to his first meeting by his sponsor, but he initiates the second meeting. It is good for Matt that the meeting is there, whether he attends or not, and that he can show up any time he wants.
If you love dogs, you do not need any more reason to view this film than Caleb: “a rescue dog who had bounced between foster homes for years because he was reportedly ‘too much dog’—is there such a thing? He eventually landed in the loving care of Cathy and Gregg Pittman of the Performing Animal Troupe.” (quote from the film’s website)
As you might have guessed by now, I’m not a film critic. However, I never doubted the characters, the plausibility of the plot, the choice of settings, or the feelings I felt as I watched. I even felt cold as I watched the actors in the outdoor winter scenes, and felt sympathy for the entire film crew filming in those conditions!
The famous Johann Hari quote is cited at the end of the credits: “The opposite of addiction is connection.” If you are looking for a story that brings that message home, this movie is hard to beat.