“My Life as a Dog” follows the life of a young boy going through some rough times, and how he uses his imagination and eccentricity to escape. His name is Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius). He’s eleven or so when the film begins. His mother has tuberculosis, as well as some rage issues, and she needs a break from Ingemar and his dickhead older brother. So Ingemar heads off to stay with his aunt and uncle for the summer.
He has an awesome summer. He makes friends, feels loved by his aunt and uncle, and experiences a stable, safe life, far from what he’s accustomed to at home.
He returns home, only to find his mother deteriorating quickly. When she dies, it’s back to his aunt and uncle.
Ingemar’s key friendship turns out to be with Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), a tomboy who is the best boxer and soccer player in the village. The two develop a deep-seated trust. When Saga starts growing breasts, she fears that her soccer career is over, since she can no longer pass for a boy. Ingemar gently binds her breasts so that she’s flat again. Sorta.
Throughout “My Life as a Dog,” Ingemar gets into one fix after another, but he has a good heart. In voice-over, he keeps talking about such tragic figures as “the guy who walked across the sports field, only to have a javelin go through his chest.” But most of his narration concerns Laika, the dog launched into space by the Soviet space program. Ingemar also keeps lamenting he should have told his mother everything while she was still well. In these moments, we always see the same snippet of Ingemar and his mother sitting lakeside. Ingemar is clowning around, and his mother laughs. That is how he remembers his mother most of the time.
After Ingemar and Saga have a falling out, Ingemar locks himself in his uncle’s “Summer House,” a sort of roofed gazebo in the back yard. There, it all hits Ingemar at once: that his mother was only rarely that laughing figure–she was more often screaming in violent rage, even without the TB; that his beloved dog, Sicka, was not “at a kennel,” but had been euthanized; and that life is messy, and he’s part of it. This venting gives Ingemar catharsis. He goes back outside to a world where Saga is finally dressing like a girl, and all of Sweden is excited about the boxing match between Ingemar Johansson and American Floyd Patterson. As if to seal their reconciliation, Saga invites Ingemar to her house to listen to the radio broadcast. The fight ends with Johansson winning, and the entire village goes joyfully nuts. On Saga’s living room couch, Saga and Ingemar are asleep together, two young best friends who took comfort together.
“My Life as a Dog” is a wonderful mix of humor, drama, and quirkiness, as eccentric as the small village where Ingemar’s big-hearted aunt and uncle live.
There was a minor controversy (no pun intended), because we actually see maybe ten seconds of young Saga’s budding breasts when she shows them to Ingemar, so they can figure out how best to hide them for soccer. Some people freak out over absolutely nothing. There was nothing lurid or even remotely sexual about the shots. I managed to control myself, and not become a slavering deviant, and I suspect 99.9999999999% of the audience will also survive intact.
(Honestly, I doubt the people who’d be offended by these brief shots would be caught dead watching a subtitled Swedish film anyway, unless they read about it in “Indignation Weekly,” and watched “My Life as a Dog” just to throw a snit over these innocent images)
I love this movie. The pacing, the mix of joy and pain, and the way it shows humans triumphing over being human–it’s amazing that the film’s tone never grew dark and dreary.
Despite certain tragedies, “My Life as a Dog” is a lot of thought-provoking fun.