REVIEW: ‘Therapy Dogs’ (2022) Is Unlike Anything Else With Its Compilation of Teenage Aimlessness and No-Brakes Rebellion

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“Consequently, with its unconventionality also comes some unevenness”

Filmed under false pretences at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario—where director Ethan Eng told school officials he would be shooting a yearbook video—Therapy Dogs features the kind of filmmaking mischief that suits its material. Following best friends Ethan (Eng) and Justin (Justin Morrice) as they try to make sense of their final year of high school, Therapy Dogs is both a preservation of real teenagers’ experiences and a fictional account of how adolescence feels eternal despite being temporary. 

Eng combines real events with staged ones so effectively that by the end of the film, one genuinely can’t tell fact from fiction and separating the two doesn’t feel vital since it all comes from a personal place. Therapy Dogs organically presents the carefree and immortal attitude that plagues so much of adolescence in a way rarely seen, especially in its hybrid moments of danger and silliness that mirror the early seasons of Jackass. Whether being strapped to the roof of a car, jumping off bridges into lakes, or fistfighting in a shopping trolley bay, every kind of impromptu recklessness is embraced in Therapy Dogs

The still is positioned from the point of view of a car's hood. Inside it are two teenagers sitting in the driver's and passenger's seat, respectively. On top of the car is Justin seen clinging on as hard as he can as he is strapped to the roof of the car. They are in an empty parking lot.
Image courtesy of Utopia

Correspondingly, the search for belonging throughout adolescence is often a search that manifests itself physically, as in self-inflicted injuries. This is evident in a scene where Ethan and Justin take turns punching a school locker. After every hit, they examine their knuckles and the metal surface to see if they’ve left a dent. This behaviour aligns with the scene when they fistfight, where each successful hit is a triumph that leaves blood and red marks behind to laugh at. It’s the foolish simpleness of it all that perfectly portrays how these actions are not just ways to prove one’s strength and endurance but the desperate need for companionship during a time when people turn to whatever it takes to try to find it. 

As it blends elements from the documentary, fiction, and experimental styles, Therapy Dogs is a compelling time capsule of teenage frivolity and mischievousness. While it’s easy to be distracted by surface shenanigans, beneath it, Therapy Dogs offers a surprisingly complex perspective on what one’s adolescent escapades can result in for a person long term. Teenagers are presented through an unfiltered lens, even if the biggest recklessness they are engaging in is daring to speak candidly about their aspirations, dreams and obstacles. Still, as teenagers are all trying to do their best whilst being torn apart by external and internal pressures, viewers can sense some kind of dread approaching—something that will burst the bubble of naive indestructibility.

During filming, Ethan carried multiple cameras to capture everything happening. While the process itself is what ultimately preserves the honesty of the work, it also hints towards an extensive period of going through massive amounts of material to eventually decide on the parts that create some kind of narrative. Consequently, with its unconventionality also comes some unevenness. Even though the film feels authentic, sometimes the search for cohesion in its scatteredness feels a little too artificial. For instance, some of the film’s emotional explorations feel superficial rather than natural—although the themes explored are as real as can be. A contradiction to this emerges in the falling out between the leads—one of the best scenes that unravel achingly organically—which happens as the intoxicated Ethan tries to explain that he’d still love Justin even if they never saw each other again, only for a confused and hurt Justin to interpret it as Ethan telling him that he never wants to see him again. Initially coming from an earnest place, the conversation ends as an argument due to alcohol and a lack of clear communication. As a viewer, scenes as candid and raw as this one feel almost too intimate, as if one is eavesdropping. 

Still showing Justin and Ethan standing on the landing platform of a water tower, which is a circular building. They are both smiling, happy and mischievous as Justin is holding a can of lime green spray paint, fully caught in the act of writing something on the property (which is already filled with half-faded graffiti from previous visitors). Ethan is the one filming, using an accessory of some kind (like a selfie stick) to get a wider shot of the two, as they both look directly into the camera. They are up several meters in the air.
Image courtesy of Utopia

Two other successfully heartfelt inserts, of the more experimental kind, focus on Ethan. In one of them, he talks about feeling like everything in the world is out of reach for him whilst viewers are shown street view graphics from Google Maps; in another insert, he visits a strip club only to confide to the workers about his inner turmoil of not fully connecting with other people. In the latter example, the intimacy is heightened by the use of strip club visuals from the video game Grand Theft Auto V instead of actual footage, as the repetition of the animated visuals puts all focus on how, even though one might age, the variations of the same fears remain through life.

Straying away from conventional narrative structures, Therapy Dogs is an anarchic montage fitting its generation, stitched together with occasional text inserts and colourful title cards. However, with a pacing that’s slightly off—some sequences feel rushed while others overstay their welcome—Therapy Dogs’ fractured state never fully merges into an entity. Whilst this can reflect the adolescent experience itself, it mostly feels too disjointed as its attempts to occupy various contrasting spaces all at once make it not fully inhabiting either. Still, the contrasting inserts might ultimately resemble what these events will later appear as when they are only near-forgotten memories—all crammed together in a confusing but heartfelt collage of adolescence, rarely accurate but filled to the brim with emotions. 

While a majority of films depicting adolescence are made by filmmakers looking back, Therapy Dogs is a look within, made by filmmakers currently going through what they’re presenting. A messy portrait of youth by the young, Therapy Dogs feels nostalgic yet contemporary, and therefore surprisingly timeless. History repeats itself regardless of the years that pass and circumstances that change. Details might change, but the feelings and struggles are still the same, recycled through generations and evident in past, present, and future teenagers. Born out of rebellion, Therapy Dogs is a film one might not always enjoy yet will still feel completely intrigued by—mirroring adolescence itself.  

Director: Ethan Eng

Producers: Walter Woodman, Patrick Cederberg, Matt Hornick, Ethan Eng, Justin Morrice

Cast: Justin Morrice, Ethan Eng, Kevin Tseng, Kyle Peacock, Mitchell Cidade, Sebastian Neme, Andrew Michalko, Jayden Frost

Release Date: January 26, 2022 (Slamdance Film Festival), March 17, 2023 (VOD)

Available on: VOD, will also be showing in select cities