By Aaron West
(This article discusses plot points from the film that some might consider spoilers.)
Coming of age stories do not necessarily need to fit into the carefully crafted formula that has been repeated ad nauseum over the last few decades. More often than not, when they deviate from that formula, they can catch honest moments and inject personality into their work. Many of the titles thus far on this list have been the films that break these constraints. I consider My Life as a Dog to be one of these films, but the power is not in it being bold and experimental, but in being subtle and identifiable.
Many children experience hardship, although few suffer nearly the lengths that Ingemar does. The way children deal with hardship is perplexing. Their minds have often not developed or mature enough to handle it well, and as a result they experience denial, cling to a myth, or minimize their misery by comparing their own lives to those much worse. This is the route that Ingemar takes, and he does so in the form of a dog. This materializes in his ruminations about Laika, the space dog that suffered to sacrifice for mankind. It also materializes with Sickan, his lovable canine companion that he is forced to abandon. Finally, it materializes with his own behavior. Rather than face the reality of his emotions, he behaves as if he is a dog. It is not apparent whether he is embodying Laika, Sickan or both, but he is clearly trying to leave Ingemar and his misfortune behind.
Along the way, Ingemar encounters what most kids encounter, the thirst for adventure and confusion over sexuality. From the outside, it may seem heartless for him to finally enjoy life and smile in the small village of Småland, but despite his hardships, this is his first opportunity to actually be a child. This is his first time being free of the oppression of his mother’s illness. He meets several other kids, most notably Saga, who is both a peer and a sexual conundrum since she is a girl who tries to pass off as a boy in order to box and play soccer. He encounters a buxom blonde in the form of Berit, the type of girl that is every child’s (and for that matter, most men’s) ideal, and his curiosity gets the best of him. He is growing up and becoming a man, but the trappings of his familial struggles threaten to lure him away.
The heart of the film comes from Gunnar, the uncle who takes Ingemar in. Gunnar is an endearing fatherly character, and he takes a liking to Ingemar. Since the boy’s real father is working on the other side of the world, the surrogate father is the closest he has to a role model. We can tell that at times Gunnar’s actions are dictated by his knowledge of Ingemar’s troubles. Soon after his introductory scene, we see Gunnar trying to cheer up the young boy, trying to get him to play. Some of the most joyous scenes are those in which they bond together. One example is when they isolate themselves in the summer house and play a song over and over again just to annoy Gunnar’s wife, Ulla. Gunnar has his flaws, but to Ingemar these are invisible. He is both a father figure and a playmate, and the bond between them is enchanting to watch.
The town also has many quirks, such as the obstinate roofer who chooses to take a naked swim in the icy waters. There is a boy who has green hair. One of Ingemar’s house companions asks him to read the text from a lingerie advertisement. These oddities add to the charm of the middle portion of the film, and despite his troubles, we understand why Ingemar settles in so well. The film celebrates the small village and its quaint charm, and many of us would love to live in such a vivacious and energetic community.
What I like best about My Life as a Dog is that we see most everything from Ingemar’s perspective and some things are not explained. We can extrapolate meaning from many scenes, especially those of a sexual nature just based on universal experiences, but we do not get explanations for why people behave in certain ways. Even though we see through Ingemar’s eyes, we do not see inside his head. We have ideas that he is troubled and that may be why he chooses to misbehave, and certainly why he chooses to take the form of a dog. However, we are never told specifically why, and we do not need this information. Ingemar is growing up and dealing with adversity, yet finding his place in the world. Sometimes just observing is a beautiful thing.