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One of the greatest and most sensitive films about children and the turbulence of childhood, My Life as a Dog (1985), Lasse Hallstrom's adaptation of Reidar Jonsson's autobiographical novel, was a break-out film for the director. The story of a 12-year-old boy sent to a rural Swedish village full of amiable eccentrics while his seriously ailing mother attempts to convalesce had universal echoes and it became both a local and international hit. It earned Hallstrom Oscar® nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with author Jonsson and two other writers), a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film, and entree to Hollywood, where Hallstrom eventually became a favored in-house director for classy Miramax Oscar®-bait productions like The Cider House Rules (1999) and The Shipping News (2001). None of those films approach the simple joy and poignant pain of My Life as a Dog, a drama that tempers the flights of childhood idyll with an undercurrent of guilt and unease as the puppyish boy blames himself for his mother's declining condition.
Eleven-year-old Anton Glanzelius, a non-actor in one of his only major roles, is an adorable puppy of a spirited kid as Ingemar, a sweetly eccentric boy with a creative sense of mischief that has a tendency to spiral out of control. Father is conspicuously and inexplicably absent (Ingemar's explanation, that he's busy at the equator loading bananas into boats, is fanciful at best) and frail, ailing mother is dying of tuberculosis. Ingemar is a sweetheart but he's also a handful and his antics, often instigated by his equally unrestrained older brother, have a tendency to reduce mom to a screaming, sobbing wreck. In need of peace, she has the boys split up and Ingemar is sent to stay with his goofy uncle and joyously tolerant aunt in one of the cutely offbeat little villages that thrive in European films. This is a place where a bedridden old man has Ingemar secretly read to him from a lingerie catalogue, a maverick sculptor puts erotic touches on the pitchers produced by the local glassworks, a buxom blonde beauty drafts Ingemar to chaperone while she poses nude for the same sculptor, and a soccer-playing tomboy poses as a boy (and the boys go along with the charade). "I have an affinity for eccentrics and outsiders, and portraying them and not being judgmental," Hallstrom admitted in an interview with London's Guardian. Ingemar, who has what can only be described as a drinking problem (for some inexplicable reason, he is physically incapable of lifting a drinking glass to his mouth in public without sloshing the liquid everywhere) and has a tendency to drop to all fours and bark like a dog, is strangely at home here.
Hallstrom was one of the first directors to make his name in the music video world, directing practically every music video for Abba as well as their big screen debut, ABBA: The Movie (1977), and he established his film credentials with a series of autobiographical television films directed from his own original scripts. My Life as a Dog was his first adaptation of another author's work and he collaborated with author Reidar Jonsson who based the novel on his own childhood; he grew up with a mother who suffered from tuberculosis and terrible fits of violence, but Hallstrom found his own personal connection. "I related to it much more than I realized as I was making the film," reflected Hallstrom in a 2002 interview. "My mom was a writer and needed a lot of that privacy and I do recall that feeling of that closed door, that typewriter that you heard from the other side of the door. I can relate to being shut out like that." Hallstrom was 13 years old in 1959, the year in which the novel is set, and his recollections of the culture and texture of the period helps color Ingemar's experience.
The metaphorical dog of the title is most obviously Laika, the dog that the Russian space program sent up into space in a Sputnik. As Ingemar sees it, the helpless canine was imprisoned in a capsule and sent orbiting around the Earth to die, alone, of starvation, sacrificed to human progress. Closer to home, he distresses over his own beloved pooch, who was kenneled back home when he was sent away (never to be seen again), and has a tendency to bark with unrestrained exuberance when he gets overexcited. It's pure childish play, but it also keeps him from having to expose the feelings and fears bubbling under his alert eyes and adorable smile. For all the joy and laughter in his uncle's home, for all the adventures of his summer of discovery and his winter of acceptance, he's plagued by guilt and unease, terrified that he's responsible for his mother's death. That's a lot of responsibility to be heaped on a 12-year-old boy facing constant rejection as he's shuttled from home to home and Hallstrom never lets us forget the big emotional weight this little boy carries. "I've been lucky compared to others," muses Ingemar in a reflective monologue played out against a view of the night sky, as if he's peering up for a glimpse of Laiki. "You have to compare so you can get a distance on things."
Hallstrom's subsequent Swedish productions The Children of Bullerby Village (1986) and its sequel, More About the Children of Bullerby Village (1987) were sweet juvenile productions that continued in the vein of childhood, but without the depth of emotion and bittersweet ache of My Life as a Dog. Nevertheless, Hollywood was already beckoning. His first American, the offbeat romantic comedy Once Around (1991) and the troubled family drama What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), are more in tune with the subtlety of feeling and the complicated emotional conflicts at the heart of this career-making film. Hallstrom balances the pleasures and pain of Ingemar's life beautifully: the ephemeral joys of everyday events, the curiosity and mystery of sex and attraction, the confusion of growing up, the helplessness of being a kid in a grown-up world, the fear of abandonment, the comfort of being accepted into a community, and the possibilities that every new day brings.
Producer: Waldemar Bergendahl
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Screenplay: Lasse Hallstrom, Reidar Jonsson, Brasse Brannstrom, Per Berglund
Cinematography: Jorgen Persson
Film Editing: Christer Furubrand, Susanne Linnman
Art Direction: Lasse Westfelt
Music: Bjorn Isfalt
Cast: Anton Glanzelius (Ingemar), Tomas von Bromssen (morbror Gunnar), Anki Liden (Ingemar's mother), Melinda Kinnaman (Saga), Kicki Rundgren (monster Ulla).
by Sean Axmaker