Director: David Terry
Writer: David Terry
Cast: Amy Lunn, Bethany O’Halloran, Amelia Stephanides, Heather Kelly, Ruth Bennett, Sam Todd, Jon Richard Bennett
Running time: 20mins
Having spent the first 25 years of my life in Britain, I am more or less fluent in English, but after spending four years in the Netherlands I can still scarcely read a panel from a Donald Duck comic without turning to Google translate for assistance. Unfortunately, mastering one theoretically similar skill does not mean you will reflexively be able to master another, without patience and a sustained effort over a long period of time.
David Terry looks to have learned this the hard way with Walk the Dog; his first fictional short film. Terry has enjoyed a long and venerable career in television production and nature documentaries, and has undoubtedly accrued an extensive set of skills to match the arm-length CV he submitted alongside this particular project. The problem is, these are not transferrable skills – and writing and directing fiction requires a whole toolkit of specialist proficiencies that are not easily acquired.
Illustrating this point, perhaps the biggest issue with Terry’s first attempt at narrative filmmaking is the script. A staple piece of advice to any new fiction writer, old or young, is that a would-be author should start out by writing what they know. In this case, Terry seems to have been determined to write about a subject from a perspective that he has presumably little first-hand experience of – that of an adolescent girl in the late 2010s. This seems to be the very antithesis of “write what you know,” and oh boy does it show!
The film’s lead character, Leah, is a young woman of few words – and that would not necessarily be a problem for a film about a character dealing with trauma on multiple fronts while struggling with her own mental health. The issue is that rather than using a series of subtle visual cues to gradually unpack her delicate psychological state, or tumultuous home environment, we are brutally beaten about the head with inhumanely blunt expository dialogue from a collection of characters who make Byker Grove look like it was rooted in earthy kitchen-sink realism.
As Leah takes her dog for a walk through the woods near her house, a gaggle of sneering youngsters in school uniform spot her approach – one of whom is Rachel, her sister – and a series of slanderous clichés fill in pretty much all the blanks in the story. “Legs-wide Leah… a psycho slut who had to leave uni ‘cos she got knocked up!” snarls one girl sporting a pink headband, who has very apparently been cast beneath her real age. To their credit, the actors do what they can with what they are given – however it is clearly difficult not to lapse into self-parody when you are being fed off-cut dialogue from a Harry Enfield sketch in the mid-90s.
Despite the protestations of a more empathetic member of the group that Leah has “given up everything to come home and look after her Mum and Rachel,” the male member of the group states it takes a special kind of psychopath to “leave someone to die” – a remark Rachel tellingly winces at. The encounter draws to a close, the first girl concludes “she’s a headcase who deserves everything she gets,” before mewling “And have you ever seen a brush, Trashbag? Comb your hair bitch” as Leah passes by.
This is an awkward and unengaging scene which doesn’t add anything to the story, besides expediting a number of key plot points that this production could not find the time to build gradually. The problem is, this shortcut can work as a means of storytelling, if it is done right. The fact of the matter is that young people do not converse like this, and they certainly don’t bully each other in such a PG manner. Shying away from any language edgier than ‘bitch,’ or any slurs and more cutting than ‘trashbag’ or ‘headcase’ deprives the dialogue of any organic feel, it never feels like anything but a middle-aged man distractingly cramming his words into the mouths of young actors, and only serves to highlight that we are being force-fed exposition. It feels more than a little insulting to be talked down to in this way, as though even as adults watching what should be a hard-hitting film on mental health, we can only be trusted to take away any lessons unless they are cued up by dialogue straight from the diabolical Tracy Beaker.
In terms of narrative pacing, Walk the Dog also struggles to find its feet. There is no rhyme or reason to the sudden ebbs and flows of the action – for example, immediately after the standoff with her sister’s friends, Leah is accosted by a stranger in the woods who has caught her dog. It is unclear whether the man is supposed to be charming or utterly terrifying, as he attempts to banter with the lone woman in the secluded woodland. His unfathomable soliloquy about the virtues of Old Mother Hubbard and her dog (again, not really something which demonstrates a writer being ‘down with the kids’) sees him come across as warm and approachable as Robert Blake’s nightmarish Mystery Man from Lost Highway. Fortunately, the brief conversation proves to be a one-off, as he does not factor at all in the remainder of the film – however, as we seemingly spend hours with Leah on a manic dance montage through her empty house, we cannot help but wonder what the point of the sequence was at all.
On a technical basis, the film doesn’t manage to serve up anything that can season the bland, overboiled vegetation of the story. Perhaps due to Terry’s background in documentary, mostly the film is shot flat, with the camera being directed solely at a subject as it is active. As mentioned, however, Walk the Dog misses a trick, as the best fiction films can manage to roll out their plot through visual storytelling. Inside Leah’s family house, for example, there is little visually to tell us how ‘bad’ life is for Leah beyond her illustratively opening bare cupboards. We don’t ever get a glimpse over her shoulder of the place having any signs of a family unit in crisis – and as such the domestic sphere which our lead character spends so much of her crisis in is incidental, rather than integral. Bare or cluttered, the setting could not only tell us a great deal about the characters that reside there, but serve as a believable emotional trigger for them – helping us identify with their distress.
In the natural world, the cinematography improves, with the production making use of Norfolk’s coasts and woodland – however, the few moments of potential artistry of this type are squandered in terms of making us feel something as an audience. When the group confront Leah in the woods, the scene seems to take place in an area of high-visibility with a constant public presence, meaning any potential menace is lost. Meanwhile, the crashing waves of the apparently nearby beach are drastically under-used. The brief moments the camera dwells on them seem simply to shout at us “WE ARE AT THE BEACH NOW” rather than visually building toward some greater theme regarding the tumultuous mental health of our lead character.
All of this might have been easier to forgive if it weren’t for the mishandling of Walk the Dog’s key message, however. I’ve reviewed a number of well-intentioned but poorly executed films aimed at raising social awareness on topics ranging from knife-crime to domestic abuse and depression, and in my opinion two of the worst crimes these films are both present here.
First, while I don’t doubt Terry’s intentions were on point, Walk the Dog’s narrative presents an alarmingly simplistic resolution to mental illness. At certain moments, Leah’s hands are used to illustrate both the importance of “letting go” of baggage (with that shot of a scrunched-up fist relaxing into an open palm that we have all come to know an loathe), and of reaching out (again, with the all-too-familiar final shot of her hand interlocking with her sister, following their wordless reconciliation) – both heavily implying that small courses of action on the part of someone suffering from depression can help them quickly overcome their condition.
Then, having failed to engage with any of the issues featured in the film in a manner that cannot be conveniently wrapped up in the conclusion, the cardinal sin. Stating that if viewers who might have suffered from depression “talk to someone… or please go online and search for professional mental health organisations in your area” is the most abrasive cop-out imaginable. Having scarcely done the bare minimum to engage with the subject, to connect with the audience, or to inform them of anything especially useful, the film then states it is incumbent on us to do our own research and head to Google for help (leaving them at the mercy of whatever sponsored results that might throw up). Amid a global mental health crisis, where there are literally millions of other films looking to address this matter in more creative and thorough ways, this simply does not cut it.
Learning to walk before you can run as a storyteller is extremely frustrating, especially when you are accomplished in another line of work. Sadly, Walk the Dog is a prime example of what happens when you ignore this rule – a perfect storm of hackneyed writing, impatient technical execution, and mishandled themes make for a fudged delivery which will do little to help promote mental health awareness, or the talents of those involved in the production.