EDITOR’S NOTE: The independent feature film, “The Year of the Dog,” opens for a minimum two-week run in at Reading Cinemas Valley Plaza starting March 10. A portion of the ticket sale net profits will be donated to the Bakersfield SPCA.
“The Year of the Dog” uses a very simplistic sports film blueprint to tell a story of triumph over adversities. It starts with an athlete struggling just to survive when suddenly help comes. Driven by a new confidence and tons of hope the athlete faces the competition of their life.
In this case, the athlete is a dog – a pure-bred Siberian Husky. The force that comes into the canine life is Matt (Rob Grabow), a man dealing with alcohol addiction. The chance encounter between man and dog proves highly beneficial to both.
The addition of the storyline of the loner alcoholic is what sets apart “The Year of the Dog” from other sports movies. Generally, it is only the athlete that must overcome personal and/or physical deficiencies. Having the parallel story makes this film twice as compelling.
Matt’s story is that he’s struggling to remain sober for 30 days so that he can see his dying mother. His efforts to stop drinking fail until a stray dog shows up at the ranch where he is trying to dry out.
Once he decides to keep the stray, Matt jokingly names the dog “You Pick” only to later discover that the name sounds like Yup’ik, a word that has very special and spiritual meaning to the local indigenous people.
While helping each other get through a day at a time, Matt enters the dog into a contest where canines compete to see how much weight they can pull. Because Yup’ik is as much as one-third as small as other dogs in the competition, he and Matt are dismissed by the veterans of the competition.
Both man and canine have something to prove.
Grabow, who is the film’s writer, co-director, and lead actor, made his smartest move by casting Caleb. The canine represents a true sports underdog. He is both compelling to watch when he is competing or at home with Matt. It is easy to root for him and that is the key to making films in this genre work.
The film’s producers visited several animal shelters and rescues in their search for a very special husky-like dog. Caleb, then a 9-month-old, pure-bred Siberian Husky, was discovered at the Performing Animal Troupe based in Palmdale.
At the same time, Grabow took a huge risk casting himself as the central figure. This is his first time directing a feature film and that is challenging enough. It worked out that his being the writer, co-director and star allowed Grabow to not waste a single frame of film.
This is a very tight story and that intensifies the emotional moments. Grabow never lets the film drift into melancholy even when it would have been easy to take that path.
Give the film extra credit for using mostly rescue dogs, indigenous actors and military veterans. The entire cast comes across as very authentic, a necessity to keep the production from falling into too many sports movie tropes.
Another smart decision was filming the movie exclusively on location in Montana. The snowy landscape is not only a beautiful backdrop but serves as a visual reminder of the cold emotional state of Matt and Yup’ik. The setting becomes almost an additional player in this tale.
“The Year of the Dog” never strays too far from the standard model for a sports movie. What elevates the production is the addition of a strong second storyline. Despite his lack of directing experience, Grabow shows a very seasoned hand in mixing these two elements together.
The end result is a movie that is touching without being cloying. It is an added bonus that local ticket sales will generate funds for the Bakersfield SPCA.
The Year of the Dog
Cast: Rob Grabow, Jon Proudstar, Michael Spears, Alyssa Groening, Jeff Medley.
Director: Rob Grabow, Andrew McGinn, Michael Peterson
Rated: Not yet rated but is suitable for all audiences
Running time: 93 minutes.