Friday May 15, 1998
In the beguilingly offbeat "Lawn Dogs," Australian director John Duigan, who has always had an affinity for outcasts and the young, and Kentucky poet and playwright Naomi Wallace team up to create a memorable fable of friendship and betrayal involving a 10-year-old girl and a 21-year-old man.
Exceptionally intelligent and having survived heart surgery, little Devon (Mischa Barton) is notably precocious. She's captivated by a Russian folk tale centering on Baba Yaga, a creature who eats little girls, and disenchanted by her unctuous, determinedly upwardly mobile parents, Morton and Clare Stockard (Christopher McDonald and Kathleen Quinlan), a lethal pair of phonies.
The Stockards have just moved to a grandiose suburban development called Camelot Gardens--the actual locale is outside Louisville--featuring pretentious outsized houses of dubious architectural design. At least these homes are surrounded by substantial lawns, and that's where Sam Rockwell's Trent comes in.
A rugged free spirit, Trent lives in a forest not too far away in a ramshackle trailer, drives a '65 Ford truck and mows the Stockards' lawn. He's the sexy redneck of a thousand other movies, the kind of man who makes other men feel jealous and insecure and draws women to him like moths to the flame--only they wouldn't dream of acknowledging him in social situations. He also appeals to Devon as the only authentic human being in her artificial world.
Trent is smart enough to realize that Devon's instant attachment could spell big trouble for him in Camelot Gardens, where he's already looked down on as trailer trash. Morton has been condescending to Trent from the get-go, and Camelot's security guard (Bruce McGill), a burly ex-cop, likes to give him a hard time. He's further targeted by two obnoxious college boys, Brett (David Barry Gray), who's having an affair with Clare, and Sean (Eric Mabius), who's attracted to him.
These characters and Devon's parents are deliberately one-dimensional; they're meant to seem like ogres in a fairy tale. On one level a satire, "Lawn Dogs" comments on the widening gap between the self-isolating haves and increasingly vulnerable have-nots in American society.
In the midst of this extremely hostile atmosphere, Devon remains absolutely determined that Trent will be her friend, and she begins to wear down his resistance. You can see from virtually frame one that trouble lurks ahead; it's just a question of when and how it will erupt and what the consequences will be.
From this predicament Duigan and Wallace reveal how Devon may be exceedingly bright yet still be limited by her 10-year-old's perspective. That "Lawn Dogs," imaginatively photographed by Elliot Davis, itself is shaped like a folk tale, ever so slightly stylized, allows it to get away with a satisfyingly surreal finish.
Even though vital, risk-taking performances are a Duigan trademark--think of the nasty Nicole Kidman in "Flirting"--Barton is in a class by herself in making Devon come alive in all her passion, iron will and naivete. Rockwell emerges as a compelling actor and McDonald and Quinlan have the dreadful Stockards nailed from frame one. The supporting cast is also strong.
Longtime moviegoers will be surprised to see again, after a 16-year absence, the once-familiar Rank Film Distributors logo, a strong man beating a gong, that heralded the beginning of many classic British films. Alas, now that Rank has been bought by the Carlton conglomerate, the Rank logo may now be gone for good.
Lawn Dogs, 1998. Unrated. A Strand Releasing release of a Rank Film Distributors presentation of a Toledo Pictures production. Director John Duigan. Producer Duncan Kenworthy. Executive producer Ron Daniels. Screenplay by Naomi Wallace. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Editor Humphrey Dixon. Costumes John Dunn. Music Trevor Jones. Production designer John Myhre. Set decorator James Edward Ferrell Jr. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Mischa Barton as Devon. Sam Rockwell as Trent. Kathleen Quinlan as Clare. Christopher McDonald as Morton.