For the most part, I’ve learned to avoid movies about dogs. It’s not that I don’t love dogs or don’t love to see them as canine protagonists. Honestly, if I could watch a full-length movie of a dog running around, playing and just generally being its happy self, I would enjoy it.
It’s just that dog movies tend to be massive tearjerkers. The first time I watched Marley & Me, I was a blubbering mess by the end credits. Hachi: A Dog’s Tale was just plain brutal, and don’t even get me started on Turner and Hooch. I can typically withstand some heartstring manipulation, but sad films with dogs hit so much harder than tragedies with people.
So, when I first saw that Netflix released Dog Gone on Jan. 13, I was wary of the film. Not only was the title’s pun off-putting, to say the least, but I also wasn’t sure I was ready for emotional devastation and turmoil.
Based on a true story, the film centers around Fielding (Johnny Berchtold), a college student who adopts Gonker, a retriever mix, to cope with his recent breakup. After his graduation, he and Gonker briefly live with his parents, John (Rob Lowe) and Ginny (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), before Gonker is diagnosed with Addison’s disease, which requires monthly treatments. Once treated, Gonker gets lost in the woods, inspiring a search for Gonker before he needs his next dose of medicine.
The characters are, for the most part, exaggerated caricatures. Fielding is a misunderstood, tie-dye-clad youth with major soul-searching anxieties. His father is a protective, disapproving parent concerned with his son’s lack of financial security. I liked the conflict and tension between the two characters, but the resolution seemed forced and contrived. No way does a disapproving parent completely change their mind based on a single conversation with a young hiker.
I’m also really not sure what’s going on with Ginny. Throughout the film, we are interrupted by odd flashbacks to her character’s childhood trauma surrounding the death of her dog. Honestly, the side plot is intense and over the top, especially when her disturbing parents stiffly bribe her with shopping if she doesn’t cry. It brought a bizarre and chaotic energy that interrupted and took away from the urgency of Gonker’s rescue.
Additionally, the plot itself feels jumbled, a tangled mess of tangents and ideas that are not fully fleshed-out. I know that this film is based on a true story, but the story felt too long for its 95-minute run time. Too much was squeezed into a film that really, to do each part of this story justice, should have been a mini-series.
I would have enjoyed the film more if it had pared down some of the details to give some of the heavier emotional moments more weight. Having two points of drama in the film, Gonker’s disease and disappearance, felt excessive and disorienting. At times, it felt like two separate movies: one where Gonker is diagnosed and Fielding gains responsibility and one where Gonker disappears and Fielding gains responsibility.
Fielding and his father also encounter a lot of poorly-acted characters on their trek to find Gonker, including some beefy bikers and belligerent bargoers. Their wooden and exaggerated performances take away from the believability of the film. Not only that, but they introduce moments for the film to get moralizing and corny about first impressions and stereotypes.
Despite the film’s flaws, my favorite moments in the movie featured Gonker. Every time he was present, he lit up the screen in little bursts of cuteness. We got many adorable scenes with belly rubs, yoga poses and impressive doughnut-flipping tricks. He also delivered the best acting performance in the film, and the scenes where he was lost and alone in the woods whining were heartbreaking.
I also enjoyed watching the progress of the search, especially once the family starts receiving phone calls from helpful Samaritans throughout the country. This introduced the magnitude and scope of the search as news of Gonker’s disappearance made its way to national news.
Yes, this film did make me cry, but I would recommend it to anyone looking for some cute dog scenes. While the pacing made the movie difficult for me to finish, and it’s certainly not the best-acted film, it has some heartwarming scenes that make the slower parts worth it.