Ethan Eng’s Therapy Dogs has a deliberate scrappy design and aesthetic to it. There are streaks of waywardness and ample detours though it can be easily argued Eng is hyper-conscious of piling the film with an aimless structure that lopes and meanders around with no continuous through-line. Two friends, Ethan and Justin, try to capture the final high school year in a film. There is an overwhelming feeling of the need for a concrete plan ahead for the future, and being tailed relentlessly by the elders’ warning that their high school heady, wanton wandering and exploration cannot be sustained; change of laidback attitude has to be abandoned and focused ambition embraced.
The precariousness and the sudden onslaught of life’s turning point gain throbbing claustrophobia and immense suffocation which Justin and Ethan resist caving into and obviously grapple and making peace with. In the opening scene, as Justin receives a volley of advice regarding what to do and how to proceed in life from his mother, who insists he must get a grip on things and not further his lazy approach to situations any further, he simply jumps out of the car. He lies on the road, bloodied and bruised, aching for some respite and seeking to shut out all the noise threatening in their magnitude.
The yearend film they are intent on patching together is primed to reveal the truth about high school and come to terms with the gamut of experiences and bouts of loneliness it has offered frequently. The film revels primarily in the nocturnal chaos and wild energy the boys and their classmates seem to gleefully be at home in. A lot of the concertedly disjointed scenes that tumble and rush through are at the heart of the film in making. Nights with LSD, a chapter in itself, are the predominating thread in their lives.
Smoking up, getting sloshed and getting the ‘white rabbit’ high sensation of achieving the high after being stoned run constantly throughout. As they film the school leaving batch talking briefly about their impressions of Cauthra and the school, they confess to not having built any networks of friends. The bond between Justin and Ethan is strong and keeps them through the messiness and the overbearing nature of the school. Realizations emerge, as they film theatre and choir rehearsals, that the boys exist as observers, hardly proactive participants in the various pursuits their batch mates joyously and vigorously cobble together and bring to fruition.
The film is centred on the largely exploratory attitude of the boys. They go on adventures that they abandon. They are not driven or madly ambitious or careerist; they are impulsive and inclined more towards experiencing life in its untamed, uncontrolled textures. However, they cannot be called insincere as they create their film with persistent zest and real ardour, often pushing themselves into extremes in the process. Eng is rather overdetermined to a fault in demonstrating how bad ideas are better with friends as we are treated to a series of dry loosely hewn together episodes and anecdotes, many detailing a certain Kevin’s experiences, the camera following him dutifully as he is rehearsing or rushing outside for a breather after having socialized. The boys climb derelict water towers and court police trouble for trying dangerous stunts, all of them being recorded and pushed into the film’s portrait of the year leaving desperation of feeling.
Therapy Dogs‘ scattershot approach could have worked had it been emotionally involved. Eventually, all the nights out seem to blend into a dull eye-glazing blur where nothing sticks in the viewer’s mind. It’s draining to watch similar situations play out with little emotional variation. Having no date for prom night is yet another trope in this dramatic territory which the film touches on, to vapid effect. However, the film earns some honest moments which do possess situational truth in their execution and construction. One of those thoughts coursing within us who we sometimes shy from expressing despite the audacity of intoxication at its height finds a disarmingly authentic portrayal here. Friendship temporarily ruptures as a genuine sudden expression of an impulse is misperceived and mishandled. That too flits by, the bonds too tight and secure to be destabilized by a supposed brash observation of a close friend.
To press on an already obvious undercurrent of the transitoriness of life and whatever passes us by, the film copiously invests time in a former student of the school who died right before graduating. We see his multi-talented individuality and his being loved by everyone in great detail. Sadly, all of these are stitched together with such scarcity of directorial skill that can envisage them into a precise mirror of a moment in life, that none of it manages to dig deep or excavate the truth which the exercise ostensibly is all about.