My Dog Skip
directed by Jay Russell
(Warner Brothers, 2000)

From Jack London's Buck to Walt Disney's Old Yeller, dogs have long been a leading man's best friend.

Some have credited Rin Tin Tin with saving Hollywood, and it was the Hound of the Baskervilles that teamed Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, spawning a long-lived radio series and 13 movie sequels that still turn up on TV today. And now we have My Dog Skip.

Unlike Lassie, Skip never saves a family farm or leads the British army to victory in World War II. And unlike Wishbone, Skip generally avoids the literary life. But Skip has one great advantage over both Lassie and Wishbone. He's real.

My Dog Skip is based on the memoirs of Willie Morris, a shy young man who grew up in the very segregated South during World War II. Morris (Frankie Munez) lives on the good side of town, but life is not always good. That's partly because he's the neighborhood nerd and partly because he's been locked into that role by an overprotective father (Kevin Bacon), an accountant who lost a leg in the Spanish Civil War and wants to make sure his son reaches manhood all in one piece.

Fortunately, Willie's mother (Diane Lane) is not only an exceptional plumber, she's a great picker of birthday presents. For Willie's birthday, she gives him Skip.

It's a gift that nearly brings down the family, but one that proves its value as the years pass. Skip not only guarantees Willie a place among his football-fanatic friends, but he finds Willie a girlfriend (Caitlin Wachs), puts a pair of moonshiners on the lam and helps bring together the white and black communities of Yazu, Miss.

It's a tall order for a small dog, but Skip handles it well, mostly by doing very simple dog things like strutting about town under the watchful eyes of director Jay Russell and cinematographer James L. Carter, who demonstrate that a dog's-eye-view of things will put the world in a much clearer perspective than our own.

Russell also enlivens Skip with some very funny set pieces, most notably Willie's attempt to enlist Skip in the army. Skip's 4F performance might have disappointed Willie, but it will delight movie audiences.

More importantly, My Dog Skip gives Bacon the chance to play something besides a sociopath or a smart aleck. In Skip, he shows himself an exceptional actor with ability to reach deep within himself to produce a sensitive portrayal of a deeply wounded person. If his performance doesn't move you, my guess is there's little that will.

My Dog Skip doesn't have a lot to say about the human condition, but what it says, it says well. Best of all, perhaps, it's a family film that isn't a kids' flick. It might leave you struggling to explain, for example, why the white folks can enter the town movie theater through the front door, while the blacks must climb the fire escape to the balcony.

A well-acted, well-scripted movie that makes you think? Gosh, what will they think of next?

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 6 April 2002

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