Lawn Dogs (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The first thing to notice about John Duigan's Lawn Dogs is the astounding performance of newcomer Mischa Barton, who plays Devon, the 10-year old protagonist. Barton is a natural actress, and manages to convey the perfect blend of maturity and innocence necessary for us to accept her character as something more vital than the construct of an uneven plot. Amongst all the weeds of Lawn Dogs, she represents one of the few true blades of grass.

The second thing to recognize is the keenly-realized relationship between Devon and a 21 year-old lawn cutter named Trent (Sam Rockwell, from Box of Moonlight). Theirs is basically a friendship between outsiders, and, although there is an undeniable sexual undercurrent inherent in their interaction, it's kept subtle, and Duigan never exploits it. This is no Lolita; these two have a great deal in common on an emotional level, but neither is interested in entering into a physical relationship. In fact, on the one occasion when Trent thinks Devon is making a sexual overture, he becomes extremely uncomfortable, and she laughs at the foolishness of his presumption.

Sadly, Barton's standout performance and the core relationship are really the only two worthwhile aspects of Lawn Dogs, a film that never quite gels into a satisfying whole. The problem is twofold. The plot is unwieldy and peppered with familiar, melodramatic moments. Worse, the supporting characters are all pure caricatures. The plentiful attempts at satirizing the suburban lifestyle consistently strike a wrong note, often seeming cruel, uncomfortable, or out-of-synch. Every scintilla of thought and creativity evident in Lawn Dogs was lavished upon Devon, Trent, and their peculiar relationship. All other elements of the film are disappointingly banal.

One of the primary themes evident in Lawn Dogs relates to the differences between the "haves" and "have nots" of the world, or, as Trent puts it, "people that own lawns and people that mow them." Trent is one of the latter, a college-aged loner who lives in a run-down trailer outside of town because he can't afford anything better. To raise a little cash, he transports his mower to the nearby, gated community of Camelot Gardens, where, for forty dollars a lawn, he does the cutting and trimming necessary for everyone to keep up with the Joneses. The home owners in the lavish, perfectly-manicured development tolerate Trent's presence because he serves a necessary function, but, when it comes to using their lavatory facilities or socializing with their children, he is persona non grata. And when a theft occurs, he is the automatic suspect.

Devon is the precocious daughter of Morton (Christopher McDonald) and Clare (Kathleen Quinlan), two newcomers to Camelot Gardens. Their overriding concern is to earn the approval of their neighbors by presenting the facade of a perfect family. Devon is bored, unhappy, and profoundly depressed by her parents' shallow behavior. Her disdain for other kids ("they smell like TV and they talk too fast") prevents her from having any friends her own age. One day, when she's out selling cookies for a girlscout-like organization, she meets Trent and senses a kindred spirit. It isn't long before the two of them have become unlikely pals, and are doing all sorts of fun things together, like stealing and cooking chickens, dancing to a Bruce Springsteen song on the roof of Trent's truck, and mooning a couple of startled fishermen.

Sitting through Lawn Dogs is like watching two entwined movies of vastly different quality. One is a well-written, atypical buddy story. The other is an uneven, cliché-riddled look at the inherent schism between the outsider and the citizens of the closed, privileged community of Camelot Gardens. The film expends enough effort on the latter to mute the impact of the former, and the climactic sequence is an exercise in violent, predictable melodrama. Director John Duigan has made a career out of exploring conflicts between mavericks and the establishment (see his Flirting, Sirens, and The Journey of August King for prime examples), but this is his weakest feature to date. While there are things to appreciate in Lawn Dogs, especially Barton's performance, the film as a whole left me strangely unfulfilled.

Lawn Dogs (United States, 1998)

Director: John Duigan
Cast: Mischa Barton, Sam Rockwell, Kathleen Quinlan, Christopher McDonald, Bruce McGill
Screenplay: Naomi Wallace
Cinematography: Elliot Davis
Music: Trevor Jones
U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 1998-05-15
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1