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'My Life as a Dog' (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 11, 1987

Anton Glanzelius, the star of Lasse Hallstr÷m's new film, "My Life as a Dog," is like a pint-size Jack Nicholson. He looks like the kind of dimpled cherubs you see floating around in Fragonards, but he's got devilish eyebrows and, even at age 11, knows how to use them. Glanzelius plays Ingemar, a wily scamp who can't keep out of trouble. (He's a hellion, a kind of Swedish boy-Eloise, setting trash dumps on fire, chucking milk in his face (he seems to have a problem with drinking-glasses) and in general running afoul of adult authorities.

The time is the late 1950s, and it's the grown-ups who are making Ingemar's life so complicated. From his lowly point of view they just don't make any sense. Take, for example, the space dog Laika, whom they blasted out into the inky-blue heavens without enough food. How do you deal with people like that? Not that it's a bad place to be, way out there in space, far away, where you can see things more clearly and try to figure them out. "You have to compare," he says, thinking of Laika, "so you can keep perspective. It helps to keep a little distance."

Ingemar could use a little distance; he's got a lot of things to puzzle out. His mother, who has a robust, sexy laugh, and an equally hearty temper, has tuberculosis and can't take care of him, so he's sent to live in a quaint country village in the south. Eccentrics abound in this out-of-the-way little burg; in fact, the place is lousy with them. Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Br÷mssen), with whom the boy lives, is a good-natured sort with a frizzy red mop of curls and a slightly befuddled expression, who listens to the same record over and over again (it's "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" in Swedish). Added to this mix is a string-beany schoolmate with green hair, a crew of misplaced Greeks and a sinewy coot who, come sleet or snow, is up on his roof, hammering away at repairs. Admittedly, the place isn't paradise (or outer space, either); still, though Ingemar misses his mom and his dog, a raggedy mutt named Sickan, he decides that, at least for now, it's not a half-bad place to be. After all, in these circumstances, if you drop down on all fours and yelp, who's gonna notice?

Based on a popular autobiographical novel by Reidar Jo nsson, the movie is a loose series of anecdotes and vignettes on the theme of the wisdom and resilience of children. Childhood and children were two of Franc ois Truffaut's major subjects, in "The 400 Blows," "Small Change" and, at least, marginally, "The Wild Child," and a decidedly Truffautesque tone runs through Hallstro m's movie. It's almost a homage to the late French director, right down to Ingemar's stubborn, Jean-Pierre Leaud-ish cowlick .

Yet as an accomplishment, the movie is about on the level of "Small Change" -- not one of Truffaut's better efforts -- and that, even, is giving it the benefit of the doubt. It's just not distinctive enough to sustain your interest. A lot of the movie is routine coming-of-age stuff. There are the obligatory scenes of sexual awakening and confusion -- with his girlfriend/sparring partner, Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), a tomboy fond of boxing to work off her nascent sexual urges (D.H. Lawrence would have loved this), and with the local bombshell, Berit (Ing-mari Carlsson), a saucy Anita Ekberg blond who works, as do most of the villagers, at the local glass factory, and asks the willing Ingemar to chaperon her visits to a sculptor's studio. (He falls through a skylight trying to sneak a peak at her modeling nude.) There is a marvelous, Bun~uelian touch in having Ingemar read to a bedridden old codger from a lingerie catalog. (Though Luis Bu˝uel might have had one of Ingemar's girlfriends -- Saga perhaps -- play the scene and sustained it for erotic effect.) There is a sexual charge to some of the material (Ingemar helps Saga bind her breasts with an elastic bandage, for example, so she won't be booted off the school soccer team as a girl), but Hallstro m appears more interested in innocence than sex. (He may think the two are in opposition.) He could use a little more of Bu˝uel's bawdy irreverence and effrontery.

The most original aspect of the story is Ingemar's identification with the downtrodden curs of the world, the Laikas and the Sickans, who get kicked around like, well, little kids. Ingemar feels pummeled; everything -- sex, his mother's illness, dislocation from his home and friends -- is hitting him all at once and he can't cope. His solution, therefore, is to default. In one hilarious scene late in the film, he can't take it anymore and, caught between two females warring for his attention at a birthday party, reverts to his canine self, barking and nipping at their heels.

Still, even this aspect of the film, isn't as fully realized or satisfying as it should be. The movie has some beautifully observed moments and a generous spirit, but in the end, it's undone by its own sweetness and charm. Hallstro m beatifies his kids and his cheerful, folksy loons. His approach is cloyingly tender; even the pain is tenderized. The kid, especially, begins to wear on your nerves a bit. With his child-fiend's grin and mile-long eyelashes, he may be too shrewd a performer for the movie's own good. Knowing proficiency in one so young can sometimes prove a mighty distasteful thing.

"My Life as a Dog" is unrated but contains some nudity and mild sexual situations.

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