Black Dog


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Black Dog
"There is great chemistry between them and Jaques knows when to tread lightly, letting their natural humour take over."

There’s a great little turn by Paul Kaye at the start of Black Dog which sets the tone for what is to follow. He plays the owner of a small mechanic business, employing one of the film’s protagonists, wayward teenager Nathan (Jamie Flatters), and the combination of irritation and affection that he shows towards the boy provides an easy way in for the audience, encouraging us to invest. Kaye is also one of those actors who chooses roles carefully based on quality, so his presence is reassuring, hinting – correctly, as it turns out – at good things to come.

Nathan is one of those innately chaotic teenagers who never seems to slow down. He’s in the foster system, sleeping with his foster sister, and generally charging through life without a great deal of awareness of other people. Nevertheless, he’s capable of heroism, as we see when he intervenes to save an apparent stranger from a beating. Later he will realise that he actually knows the boy – they went to primary school together – but by then he will have made another choice which complicates any prospect of friendship.

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Despite this, the boys will encounter each other again, and end up driving north together. Nathan has it in his head that he’s going to Scotland – which he talks about as if it were a single location the size of a city block – and find the sister from whom he was separated when he was small. Sam (Keenan Munn-Francis) has family business near Newcastle. He’s alert to some of Nathan’s issues from the outset, but feels he owes him for that rescue – and perhaps there’s something else. The longer they spend driving together, the more it becomes apparent that Nathan is not okay. He lacks basic life skills. He’s unable to assert himself. He keeps turning down food. He seems to know, instinctively, that he needs somebody to look after him, and Nathan, to his own surprise, gradually rises to the occasion, even though Sam won’t tell him what’s actually wrong.

There’s a freshness to the film which perhaps stems from the age of its director. At just 22, George Jaques is close enough to his characters to see them simply as people, without any of the nostalgia or concern that tend to distance older directors tackling this kind of subject. In most cases, one would expect a trade-off where skill is concerned, but Jaques has an impressive understanding of cinematic technique and, most notably, a confidence that many directors never acquire to this degree. As a result, his direction is fluid throughout, even when he’s abruptly shifting styles to reflect the characters’ different relationships with the world around them. Despite Sam’s introspection and the fact that both leads spend a fair bit of the film cooped up inside a car, he manages to maintain the pact throughout.

Viewers should be aware that the film contains some distressing scenes related to animal suffering, and deals with themes of grief which become intense in places. None of this is gratuitous and it's all carefully handled. Despite the stresses that both young men have to deal with, they are both, in their different ways, well meaning people, and the same is true of most of those they meet. This isn’t a film about cruelty, except perhaps of the unintentional variety. It simply acknowledges that life can be cruel and that there’s a point at which young people have to deal with that on their own – or with one another. What’s important isn’t finding a Hollywood-style space in which they can believe that everything is going to be alright, but, rather, learning that they have the power to survive and take some control over their respective fates.

Flatters, who co-wrote, has the flashier role and most of the more dramatic moments, but he’s perfectly complemented by Munn-Francis, whose portrayal of a quiet young man facing intolerable pressures slowly builds up over the course of the film, making him more and more compelling to watch. Most importantly, there is great chemistry between them and Jaques knows when to tread lightly, letting their natural humour take over. The film may deal with some heavy themes but it’s full of laughter and hope. Nathan has never left London before and the look on his face as he gazes at the open fields along the sides of the road is something special. What beings with close-ups in small spaces, the camera moving at frantic speed, gradually opens up visually and thematically as we watch these two characters begin to reckon with the vast sweep of possibilities that lies ahead of them.

Black Dog screened as part of the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival.

Reviewed on: 04 Mar 2024
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Two teenagers' lives collide when one is mugged, leading to an unexpected road trip.

Director: George Jaques

Writer: Jamie Flatters, George Jaques

Starring: Jamie Flatters, Keenan Munn-Francis, Nicholas Pinnock, Paul Kaye, Ruby Stokes, Hattie Morahan, Amrita Acharia, Jason Flemyng, Leanne Best, Liv Hill, Flynn Allen, Joe Hughes, Marc Wesley DeHaney, Chicho Tche, Jamie Smelt

Year: 2023

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: UK

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