When we first see Ellie (Diane Gaidry), the younger of two damaged heroines in Jacques Thelemaque's The Dogwalker, she's the picture of unhinged desperation. Ill-concealed by big sunglasses, her heavily battered face features a recently split lower lip, one so swollen that she can barely make herself understood when requesting that a startled airline counter agent sell her a ticket on the next flight going . . .anywhere. As much as by Ellie's beaten-prizefighter visage, we are immediately struck by an odd dislocation in time. Seemingly, we have been cast back into the pre-9/11 world, where a distraught woman can literally run onto an airliner without any evidence of alarm from airport security and where, a moment later, her crazed ex-boyfriend -- obviously the one responsible for those appalling bruises -- can suddenly materialize at the cabin door, shouting her name.
At first, this entire scene feels like a case of blatant cultural ignorance on the part of the filmmakers, but it takes on a kind of super-reality: So vulnerable is Ellie to violence and (we soon learn) her own self-destructive carelessness that the usual rules and protections don't apply to her. From the beginning, we get the uneasy sense that she's a tragedy in the making, a time bomb fitted with a short fuse.
Thus does writer/director Thelemaque, who grew up in Niwot, set the ominous mood of this quiet, beautifully acted drama, which was made on a small indie budget and inhabited by an unknown cast. It's about the unlikely alliance of two gravely wounded women and, not coincidentally, about the nature of dogs. By the way, this Dogwalker should not be confused with two other film projects that bear exactly the same title -- an "outsider" comedy from 2002 starring Will Foster Stewart, and a new Reese Witherspoon vehicle, still in production, based on a bestseller by former New York publishing exec Leslie Schnur.
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As it happens in Thelemaque's film, Ellie's randomly selected airplane lands in Los Angeles. "Here I am, wherever that is," this drifty fatalist declares. In time, though, she discovers where she is. A stray on the streets, she's brutally relieved of her scant cash when she tries to score some pot, runs afoul of a creepy predator and grabs a meal from a trash can. But salvation of a sort is en route, in the person of a wary, embittered old casualty named Betsy (Pamela Gordon), whose voice is a smoke-cured rumble, whose view of life is as cynical as it is guilt-ridden, and who obsesses about her dogwalking business. Both women have terrible scars and secrets: They remind you less of those break-out rebels Thelma and Louise than of the downtrodden refugees Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. Like that pair, they form a shaky, hard-won friendship out of mutual need, the specifics of which Thelemaque reveals in alluring fragments.
It wouldn't do to reveal much more, except to say that Betsy, who has the hollow, haunted look of a prisoner beneath her mask of furious self-reliance, is clearly not long for this world, and that her only chance for some kind of redemption lies in transferring wisdom to the rootless, clueless Ellie. Meanwhile, the film makes an ongoing metaphor of the parallels between human life and dog instinct, which is at times intriguing and at others irritating. In fact, there's a bit of sophomore-year clunkiness in Thelemaque's writing, and his frequent philosophizing (this is Mondo Cane: We all act like dogs, more or less) can feel shallow and forced. But the two lead performances are so authentic and heartfelt that in the end, The Dogwalker is irresistible. Between Gaidry's touching emotional nakedness and Gordon's world-weary need, a great chemistry develops. Few movies produce such a brilliant and heartrending collision of character. The whole thing is made even more effective by the obscurity of the actresses. It's as if we're watching life, not art.
The supporting cast, too, is just right: Lyn Vaus is a good guy who gives Ellie another glimmer of hope; Kerry Bishop hits the mark as a Hollywood star whose dog Ellie manages to lose; and veteran Lisa Jane Persky, the film's most familiar face, avoids the usual wacky-in-L.A. cliches while portraying a dog-whisperer who hangs around the park where the ailing Betsy and her new assistant, Ellie, exercise their four-legged charges, which come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments.
The story of two souls in torment finding comfort in each other is as old as drama itself, and it's heartening to see it so skillfully renewed in a film that costs about as much as three weeks' pay for Julia Roberts's chauffeur. Despite a glitch here and there, this is the real thing.