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John Duigan's Lawn Dogs is the kind of arch, postmodern fairy tale in which the little girl who's gone wandering in the dark forest winds up pointing an automatic pistol at her insufferable father's head, and the mysterious boy who's become her secret friend makes his getaway from demons in a battered pickup truck. All without losing that ineluctable...magic.

Seen one way, this peculiar, self-conscious film, written by Kentucky poet/playwright Naomi Wallace, is another meditation on innocence and the loss of innocence. Seen a second way, it's another quasi-Marxist lesson in class struggle that pits the uptight bourgeois strivers in a nightmarish, candy-colored upscale suburb called "Camelot Gardens" against a free-thinking man of nature who lives in a ratty trailer out in the woods.

Seen a third way, it's another piece of pretentious nonsense from the England-born, Australia-raised Duigan, who has already foisted on the world several other pieces of pretentious nonsense--including Sirens (Bohemian carnality overwhelms Victorian repression) and The Journey of August King (pioneer white liberalism overwhelms the sin of slavery).

In Lawn Dogs, nature overwhelms social bigotry, probably because in a Duigan movie, something must always overwhelm something else.

Dramatis personae:
* Ten-year-old Devon (Mischa Barton), a willful girl who's had open-heart surgery, can't stand her bossy, ambitious father (Christopher McDonald) or her adulterous mother (Kathleen Quinlan). She takes refuge in the woods and in scary Baba Yaga fairy tales.

* Twenty-one-year-old Trent (Sam Rockwell), the "white trash" lawn man who endures the daily slights and taunts of the rich people he works for, the cops and the suspicious security guard who keeps an eye on him. Of course, he's really a rebel who drinks beer in his truck, urinates where he damn well pleases and dives naked from one-lane bridges spanning local rivers.

* Everybody else.
Natural soulmates, Devon and Trent become friends. They defy middle-class convention. They show each other their scars. He gives her a turtle. She gives him a magic cloth and a comb. Misunderstood rebels, they stumble into trouble and a man gets shot. Magic itself aids a nick-of-time getaway. The actors are skilled, and the ancient lessons are sound. But the whole thing is just a bit precious and preachy and pseudo-symbolic: It would make an ideal topic for discussion, I suspect, in a youth church group, an eighth-grade civics class or a bridge club.

--Gallo

Lawn Dogs.
Screenplay by Naomi Wallace. Directed by John Duigan. With Mischa Barton, Sam Rockwell, Kathleen Quinlan and Christopher McDonald.

 
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