Movies about children can be made in four basic ways. The first is one of unabashed fantasy, without any pretensions to realism. It can yield very pleasing results, as in the Shirley Temple movies.
The second way is that of the adults who exploit the kids' image, and with premeditation try to con the public into believing that this is how it really is. Such films are false, but their lowest common denominator formulas often work well with the mass public, including the youthful public. There are many such movies.
The third approach is better intentioned, as the filmmakers kid themselves that their depiction is genuine. The fourth way is to make the film as close and as faithful as possible to the kids' point of view. Theoretically, there could be a fifth method: films made strictly, entirely, by kids and from their own viewpoint. This is an impossibility, a cinematic oxymoron. One would have to implant recording devices into a child's eye and brain, as in some science-fiction pictures.
So, the very best we can hope for is approach number Four. This is the attitude that gave us classics like Jean Vigo's "Zero For Conduct" or Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" and a few more films. You now can add to this tiny group the Swedish "My Life As A Dog."
Director Lasse Hallstrom made his first movie at age ten, (with his father's Super 8), the 3-minute "The Ghost Thief." He went on filming in high school, sold "Mascots" (about a music group) to TV before graduating, became a freelance TV maker of short, funny sketches.
In the1970s, under contract to television, he made four rather autobiographical series , including "Shall We Go Home to my Place or your Place or Each One of Us to Our Own Place?" The head of production at the Swedish Film Institute found it funny, suggested that Hallstrom make a film feature on the theme of "boy meets girl."
That was "A Lover and his Lass," followed by other features, all described by a Swedish critic as "tranquil comedies." In 1985, with his fifth feature, the different "My Life As Dog," which is tranquil and not so tranquil, a comedy as well as a drama with elements of tragedy, Hallstrom stepped onto a broader scene. The movie was voted Film of the Year in Sweden, and its young star, Best Actor. It has since become a major international success, receiving prizes in several festivals and getting excellent attendance. Recent statistics in the U.S.A. have it high on the box-office list, ahead of any other current foreign film.
"My Life As Dog," loosely adapted from a 1983 novel, treats in a series of well-connected, smoothly flowing episodes, a period of about a year in the life of a 12-year old boy. It is 1959, the year when Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson defeated world champion Floyd Patterson. The boy is also called Ingemar Johansson, and he too will have to fight his way into growth. His absentee father is out at sea , somewhere in the Equator. We never see him. Ingemar is a private boy, secret though not secretive. He does not pass judgment on his father or discuss him -- or anyone or anything else for that matter --in the orderly, narrative, cause-to-effect fashion of adults. When asked , he replies that father is loading bananas, and if he left, who would load them?
Ingemar lives with his older brother and his mother, a book-lover terminally ill with tuberculosis. The relationship among the three is warm, understanding and attractive, in spite of some downs. The boys do their childish best to help with the chores, often with comically catastrophic results. Sibling rivalry, Ingemar's sub-teen high spirits and awkwardness result in mischief and accidents that frequently involve the elements, from water (Ingemar wets his bed) to fire (he starts one by the beach). There is an echo here of Truffaut movies ("The 400 Blows," " Small Change") both in the details and in the way the mishaps are treated matter-of-factly, humorously, elliptically, without elaboration.
The sick mother now and then goes into understandable fits of rage. When her condition worsens, the brothers are sent away to different places for the summer. Ingemar, separated from his dog, goes to his uncle's house, in a small, provincial, unpaved nowheretown where time seems to have stood still for decades. The uncle, a married, peasantish, kindly bon vivant, treats the boy like a pal, becomes a bit- but not entirely-- a surrogate father to him.
Uncle works in a glassworks where old-fashioned methods are still used. Through him Ingemar meets a collection of oddballs and eccentrics that could easily have become too picturesque or corny, were it not for the film's ability to stop in time and to avoid heavy-handedness. He meets Saga, the best player in the soccer team and the best boxer around. Saga turns out to be a pretty tomboy who despairs at her burgeoning breasts that will interfere with athletics. At the same time, attraction for Ingemar burgeons too.
There is old, bedridden Mr.Sandberg, whose end is near but who hides the equivalent of a Sears catalogue and almost swoons when he has Ingemar read him the text that describes women's underwear. There is glassblower Berit, a sweet woman who looks like a younger Ellen Burstyn and whose voluptuous figure is desired by all. She brings out more troubled, nascent sexuality in Ingemar when she has him accompany her to a sculptor's where Ingemar must wait and not peek while she poses in the nude. On the whole, it is a good summer for Ingemar.
After the boy's return home, his mother dies. He is sent back to the small town for good. Following a short, painful period of adjustment, he takes the step into adulthood, just as his namesake triumphs in the boxing ring.
We forget how marvellous it can be for a youngster to discover that the most ordinary days can be filled with revelations and discoveries. In every episode, Ingemar lives the growing pains, confusions and joys of coming of age. He is a sober kid of few words. He makes up for this with introspection. His stream of consciousness punctuates the film. Whenever Ingemar is particularly confused or sorrowful, the movie cuts to a star-studded sky and we hear the boy's thoughts.
Ingemar is a collector of odd facts, mostly about accidents through which he ponders the mysteries of life and fate. He thinks of a train and bus collision that left five dead and fourteen wounded; of an Evel Knievel-type daredevil motorcyclist who perished as he was trying to jump over 31 barrels (" if there had been only 30, he would have cleared them"); of an athlete in a stadium who was transfixed by another's javelin throw.
Ingemar talks to himself the way characters in the films of Godard tell each other trivia and anecdotes, seemingly irrelevant but in reality meaningful. The meaning for Ingemar is that, after all, his tribulations are minor: in relative terms he's not so badly off.
Throughout, his constant, his leitmotif, is the story of Laika, the dog that the Soviets sent into space and left to die among the stars. The boy identifies with Laika as well as with his own, absent dog. When particularly perplexed or annoyed, he gets down on all fours and barks.
Among the charms of "My Life as a Dog" is that it is sensitive without being distancing, outlandish and cute (His Life) ; or familiar to most viewers and maudlin (Our Life); or full of manufactured surprises (This is Your Life).
The cast is perfect. Anton Glanzelius (Ingemar), is a homely child with the kind of face that at first glance seems more appropriate for The Dead End Kids or Our Gang. Yet he gets to you within minutes as his deep-set eyes prove what Ingmar Bergman said, that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. Glanzelius can convey an amazing range of feelings through tiny changes of expression and body language. His is an Oscar-worthy performance.
Script and direction introduce superb little details, visual and behavioral (Ingemar takes out his alienation by chasing a potato around his plate) or aural (the transition of sound from a vacuum cleaner to a car engine). Director Hallstrom's techniques--indirect, lovingly ironical, elliptically humorous, based on razor-sharp observation -- are good enough to make you wish to see his other films. Hallstrom's approach is the closest thing to the methods of master filmmakers like the Czech (now American) Milos Forman ("The Firemen's Ball"), that other Czech Jiri Menzel ("My Sweet Little Village") or those of the better, bittersweet Yugoslav movies.
It's a wonderful "Life."