DOGTOWN, an independent film released to film festivals around the United States in 1998-99, was written and directed by George Hickenlooper, who has directed such films as "Sling Blade," "The Big Brass Ring," "The Low Life," and the documentary "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse." Hickenlooper was inspired, in part, by his sudden celebrity in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri after the release of "Hearts of Darkness."
"Dogtown" is set in the town of Cuba, Missouri, which actually exists. Torrance, California was used to stand in for Cuba during the filming. They story revolves around Philip Van Horn (Trevor St. John) who returns to Cuba thirteen years after he ran away from home just after graduating from the local Catholic High School. Philip does some narration at key points in the movie, and flashbacks tell some of the story of his childhood in Cuba and his struggles in Los Angeles after runnning away from Cuba. The central memory of his childhood was how Dorothy Sternen, the most popular girl throughout school, rejected and tormented him, along with the boy who would become the All-American star of the basketball team, Ezra Good.
Karen Black, long-time Hollywood veteran, portrays Philip's dysfunctional mother, who tries to relive her teenage years with the leader of the garage rock band who "boards" at the house in Philip's absence. Philip has returned home from Hollywood, where he has landed a few bit parts and walk-ons, but spent more time living under overpasses and, it is suggested, even prostituting himself on occassions. Philip is surprised when some of the townspeople, including the deputy sheriff, greet him as if he is a celebrity. The deputy was a friend of Philip's in the old high school, and does amateur Shakespeare productions.
As Philip visits old haunts, like the local ice cream stand, he runs into old friends like "Blessed" William, the owner of the town's cigar store. A veteran of World War II, William is missing both hands, using prosthetic hooks. William is portrayed by Harold Russell, the Academy Award winner of "The Best Days of Our Lives." Russell's performance as "Blessed" William is memorable, conveying the personality of the one character in the piece that is beloved by the entire town.
Dorothy Sternen first appears to Philip at the ice cream stand. She is with her two girlfriends from high school (Maureen McCormick and Shawnee Smith) who work at the local beauty parlor, next to the closed down theater. Dorothy was captain of the cheerleading squad thirteen years before (1984) and later went on to compete in a Miss Missouri contest. Voted Most Beautiful by her class, she is now drifting aimlessly in her life as a fading star of Cuba. She is mostly with Ezra, who remembers Philip Van Horn with only contempt, which is the way Dorothy treated Philip during high school. Now, after thirteen years and nothing but broken dreams, and an attempted suicide, she is intrigued by Philip's Hollywood "success." Sitting outside the ice cream stand, at their first reunion, Dorothy remarks that she has never been inside Cuba's art museum even though she has lived there all her life.
Philip and Dorothy become romantically entangled as Ezra Good deteriorates in his bitterness over his failure during the high school state basketball championship game thirteen years before. Ezra had gotten drunk the night before, played miserably, and the school was defeated. He blamed the black players on the other school's team, and his racist views would get him in trouble with the drug dealers to whom Ezra is heavily in debt.
Just before Philip is to leave for a part in New York, "Blessed" William dies of a heart attack after breaking up a violent confrontation between Ezra and one of his friends. The whole town turns out for the funeral.
During a town celebration the night Philip returned, "Blessed" William told Philip how he got his name. A young girl used to run to his house whenever her drunken parents left her alone. He would hold her as she cried, and said to him: "Bless you." A veteran at William's funeral presents the folded American flag to Dorothy. "Blessed" William's death crushes Dorothy. Shawnee Smith's character tells Philip that Dorothy loved him more than anyone.
Ezra drinks and shoots baskets in the school playground during the funeral, only to be badly beaten up by the black drug dealers he owes money. Parked outside the art museum that night, Ezra tells Dorothy he loves her. After a confrontation, Dorothy runs into the art musuem and walks the galleries alone for the first time. From this point of the movie to the end, we see the ability of Mary Stuart Masterson to convey the emotions of a character to perfection. In the final scene, we see her at her best, but I'll let the readers rent the video and see it for themselves.
This movie is in a similar vein to "The Last Picture Show." Hickenlooper even uses the image of the marquee of the closed theater to communicate this. The last movie shown at the theater was 1984's "Sixteen Candles," the John Hughes comedy that showed the traumas of high school and its caste system. Some of the letters are missing from the title, and one falls to the sidewalk during the movie. The year 1984 was the year Philip, Dorothy, Ezra, and most of the main characters graduated.
"Dogtown" is a story about how the traumas of childhood and adolescence can maim the characters of people before they even get started in life. While sad in many ways, the ending suggests that healing, and redemption, are possible.
Shawnee Smith and Roy Cochrane were in a previous George Hickenlooper film, "The Low Life." The Maureen McCormick referred to in the review is the same Maureen McCormick who played Marcia Brady in "The Brady Bunch."