Screenwriter Mike White has a humanistic proclivity for bestowing outcast and oddball characters with dignity, a propensity he maintains in his sweet if somewhat slim directorial debut Year of the Dog. The weirdo at the center of White’s latest is Peggy (Molly Shannon), a single woman approaching middle age with awkward interpersonal skills, a big toothy smile that’s simultaneously cheery and creepy, and only one true friend in the world: her beagle Pencil. When Pencil dies from an apparent poisoning in the yard of neighbor Al (John C. Reilly), lonely, heartbroken Peggy embarks on a series of episodic romantic adventures, first with Al, whose hunting hobby borders on the psychotic, and then with Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a flag-waving—and blatantly asexual—ASPCA member. Her pursuit of companionship is difficult, partly because her obsession with animals is passionate to the point of being off-putting, and party because her desire to find a mate is not really hers, but rather one promoted by her marriage-obsessed co-worker (Regina King) and her cheery, child-overprotective brother and sister-in-law (borderline cartoonish Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern).
Full of center-of-the-frame compositions interspersed with random cutaways to corny/endearing environmental details, White’s direction—aided by cinematographer Tim Orr—feels blandly modeled after Wes Anderson’s. Yet if its style is a bit derivative and its reserved humor tends to wax and wane, the film is nonetheless reasonably playful and charming, and benefits immensely from a sterling lead performance by Shannon, who mines Peggy’s social clumsiness for laughs without ever turning her into a mockery-courting caricature. As her character’s escalating animal-rights activism begins to alienate her from family, friends, and colleagues (including her boss Robin, played to eccentric perfection by Josh Pais), Shannon locates the desperate discontent that comes from chasing other people’s dreams, as well as the liberation that’s attainable by simply embracing that which brings true happiness. Minor but moving, it’s a story about, and for, outsiders—and PETA members as well.