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Shiloh, you are my friend

SNL alum Molly Shannon plays a woman whose life turns upside down after the death of her dog

In her denim jumpers and cardigan twin sets, Peggy (Molly Shannon) is the atypical invisible singleton secretary, the type who thoughtfully brings treats to the office for her higher-ranking co-workers who don’t know her name but gorge regardless.

“Year of the Dog”

STARRING: Molly Shannon, Peter Sarsgaard and John C. Reilly
PLAYING AT: Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis, (612) 825-6006

She has cobbled together a conventionally solo, self-protective existence for the most part: listening to her best friend (Regina King) babble on about her unknowingly unfaithful boyfriend, listening to her monstrously neurotic sister-in-law (Laura Dern) babble about the baby’s allergies, and listening to her glum boss (Josh Pais) babble about how unappreciated he is. She doesn’t expect much from people – in fact, they more often flat-out disappoint her – so it all works out fairly nicely as is.

Hovering around her early 40s, Peggy dabbles in dating, but without much luck. The mostly harmless advances of her awkward big-game hunter neighbor Al (John C. Reilly) are met with contempt. She bonds over puppy love with animal rescuer/”reward-not-punishment” trainer Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), but his ambiguous sexuality is frustrating – does he like girls, boys, both Ö or just dogs?

She prefers her beloved pet beagle Pencil to any human she knows anyway. The duo are inseparable companions. They sleep together, eat together and even take in Friday night movies together. Life is uncomplicated and safe, and Peggy is happily entrenched in a satisfying relationship of codependency with her beloved pet.

Then, Pencil meets an untimely demise from toxic poisoning in Al’s yard, and leaves behind a massive void, and frankly, Peggy goes a little crazy. Left to pick up the pieces of her now-shattered life, she embarks on a largely disastrous personal journey towards her own contentment (including becoming a vegan, which she greets with confused overzealousness, and endorsing company checks to animal shelters) while her aforementioned friends, family and co-workers try to distract her with their own obsessive quests.

Director Mike White loves misfits like Peggy. In films like “Chuck & Buck,” “School of Rock” and now “Year of the Dog,” he zeroes in with a stubbornly nonjudgmental compassion on the kind of people you’d probably avoid, or at least not notice. In

documenting their most agonizingly awkward moments, you are forced along the ride to see the world from their perspective.

“Year of the Dog” in particular is a fearlessly uncomfortable portrait, one of love and grief that straddles the line between the comedy and the cruelty found in the pain of loss. Still, his directorial debut (up until this point, he was strictly a screenwriter) is a sometimes fascinating but fairly untidy character study, perhaps a little too esoterically quirky for its own good.

At times, “Year of the Dog” can be completely miserable. One thing should be made clear: while there are the occasionally funny bits, this is not a comedy. Mainly, it’s just pathos, pathos, pathos. Any laugh-out-loud moments are of the nervous-tension-relieving variety, the kind that make you shift uncomfortably in your seat over the misfortune.

While some of Shannon’s journey into darker material (she is most well-remembered for ridiculous SNL sketches; here, she doesn’t give you the easy out of laughing at her obvious comedy) seems to have little purpose above making Peggy an embarrassing spectacle, she is proven an incredible actress capable of holding this uneven feature on her shoulders. Shannon makes this a lauded account, and the depth of loss she fearlessly makes Peggy feel for Pencil is expressed with observations acute and honest.

If Peggy was any less compelling of a character, and Shannon any less of an actress, “Year of the Dog” would have probably been a disaster, thanks to a slightly undercooked script and White’s occasionally flat directing.

Still, the film contains a quiet, fragile delicacy, with many of its most poignant moments surfacing only after you’ve left the theater. While it can be droll, its examination of the love of a pet, how it’s often incomparable to what we feel toward each other and how painful life can be in their absence. Sure, “Year of the Dog” isn’t perfect, but neither is Peggy, and that’s why it ultimately gets by.

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