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Monday, 17 November 2014

For the Love of Dogs (2014)

Director: Tim Odonnell
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Zoom! had the benefit of having a subject dear to my heart, independent record labels, but For the Love of Dogs is just as engaging, if not more so, because of a fascinating boy who rated his own documentary at the age of eleven. He's Cory and he has Asperger's. He was diagnosed at four and, even with the help of a therapist and a psychiatrist, not to mention very supportive parents, he's still learning how to cope in a world where people generally don't have what he has. If, like Burt and Ray in Zoom!, he's a charismatic enough subject to ensure that we're quickly on board, the people behind the camera contributed much to the success of his story, not just by keeping out of the way so Cory can win us over as much as he does a whole slew of strangers in the film but also with some interesting choices of camera location or ways that people can get a point across. Most notably, in telling us all about Cory, writer/director Tim Odonnell also tells us about the condition that he has on a much wider scale.

Given that Asperger's is a name that crops up more and more nowadays, it's worth this visit to refresh us on what it actually is and Cory appears to be a good example. He's fine verbally, in fact better than many of his peers, but he's bad at reading body language and other non-verbal cues. This impacts his ability to connect to other people and the outside world, which prompts both anger and anxiety. He suffers notably from sensory overload, not least with a photographic memory. He told his mother that 'my mind is like a DVR' that's really hard to stop. He also hears things louder and scratchier than the rest of us and with no delineation between what's in the foreground and background, making it hard to focus on one thing. He puts his hands over his ears a lot to control that. He benefits from repetition and has his own obsessive compulsive routines to organise the chaos. Most notably, he's hyperfocused on a specific interest which, as with many like him, is animals. He uses it to control his anxiety and screen it out.
So Cory has problems. It was interesting to hear his father talk about his own OCD, which he sees as one reason he's successful at what he does but also one reason why he's hard to live with. Cory's grandfather may have been even more like him, but of course came from a time when such things weren't diagnosed or even discussed, just noticed by those around. I found these scenes fascinating and would have liked to hear more detail, but I understand the need to return to Cory and especially to progress to the point when he visits the National Dog Show in Philadelphia, at which we spend the majority of the film. Clearly Cory can deal with owners of dogs much better than other people because they share a common interest and that can be easily engaged by obvious conversation openers. He impresses many at the dog show in the ways that touch hearts, seeing dogs and, through his photographic memory, recognising their sires, even when the latter are dead. That's an odd way to keep loved companions alive and it's very touching.

The most obvious flaw of the film is that it captures Cory partway through a story that is clearly not over. While we're given background to highlight how he got to eleven, we immediately want to know how he's going to be as a teenager and a young adult. This lessens the film in a sense, not in what it is but in what it could be. I hope that Odonnell will be able to continue shooting Cory's progression through life, perhaps adding new footage occasionally like how Michael Apted has done with his Up series, which revisits a set of seven year old children for updates every seven years. Perhaps inevitably, while Cory is the focal point of the film, he's the least interviewed, so we continually get his feelings either second hand or through a translation to the visual. While that often works (we really don't need to hear 'best day ever' because it's obvious in his face and his interactions), we still want to hear him talk to us. However, these aren't major complaints and this is still 26 minutes very well spent.

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