“Dog Gone” is a maudlin, sappy (inspired by a) “true story” about a boy and his missing dog. It’s a Netflix tearjerker of the “Marley & Me/A Dog’s Purpose” school, packed with cliches and served up with a heaping helping of melodramatics as a side dish.
It’s a family movie, nobody’s idea of Great Cinema, but will almost certainly play as less manipulative to younger viewers.
What it has going for it is a simple universal truth. Almost everybody loves dogs. “Dog Gone’s” big, obvious subtext is dogs as a unifying connective tissue in the culture. Losing one is as close to a shared heartbreak as anything the young and old share as a common experience.
“Of COURSE I’ll help you look for your dog” is as basic a test of humanity as you’re likely to come up with.
Director Stephen Herek (“Mr. Holland’s Opus” was his high water mark) goes for the hankies in this adaptation of Pauls Toutonghi’s non-fiction book, imagined here as a tale of an overachiever but disconnected father (Rob Lowe) and his newly-graduated-but-aimless-son (Johnny Berchtold) who bond over the search for the irresponsible son’s wayward Lab.
We meet just-ditched-for-a-Frisbee-bro Fielding at “Virginia University.” His way out of his girlfriend-loss funk?
“Let’s go to the pound!”
For “What is man without the beasts,” Fielding declares, quoting Chief Seattle to his BFF Nate (Nick Peine). He’ll adopt a dog, name him “Gonker,” and let him live “free” and off-leash all through college.
But after sleeping through his graduation, he gets mildly reproached by his super-organized, motivated “fixer” and problem-solver Dad for his lack of direction and the fact that he’s adopted a dog and never told his father or mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley).
“Having a dog’s a responsibility!”
Aimless Fielding is no closer to figuring out life after he has to move back home to Northern Virginia, when he and Nate let Gonker off-leash on a day hike on the Appalachian Trail. One fox encounter later, Gonker’s gone.
“Dog Gone” is about the search for that missing dog, with father and son hitting the trail and mom organizing a methodical, county-by-county, town-by-town, newspaper by social media message board hunt for the missing pet.
Because it turns out Mom lost a dog when she was young, and flashbacks remind dog people of another universal truth. That trauma can last a lifetime, and Mom’s sure not willing to let it happen again.
Herek isn’t a subtle director, and you can scan his credits to see “competence” is sort of the top end of expectations of anything he puts his name on.
“Dog Gone” rubs any edge off every character in it, doesn’t develop the father-son disagreement gap at all, and fails utterly to find any humor in a big, galumphing dog creating mischief and mayhem because, like his slacker owner, he lacks discipline.
The script piles health scares into a “ticking clock” plot — the dog is off his meds, the kid isn’t well either — to little avail. And it doesn’t give Berchtold or Williams-Paisley the big emotional moments their characters are set up to experience, the despair of loss or a Hollywood ending.
But here’s what I was thinking about in all the many encounters, on the trail, in stores and shelters and veterinary offices depicted in the movie. There’s that one waitress in a remote, mountain-town eatery who sums up the shared humanity that piles onto this movie, something that anyone who’s ever looked for a lost dog will recognize from when they printed up fliers or posted a notice on Facebook.
“Your dog’s lost? Oh my GOODNESS, he’s so cute!”
Of COURSE she’ll post your flier. Of COURSE we’ll “pass the word” among rescue groups, shelters, neighbors, biker gangs.
About a third of the women I am “friends” with on social media are semi-professional dog rescue allies. Many of them relentlessly post found and lost dog notices all the live-long day.
“Dog Gone” taps into that world — the shelters, animal rescue subculture, the helpers, the way members of the media embrace missing dog stories, fellow dog owners with “how to track” and “how to help him track you” tips.
“Must love dogs” should be our national motto.
Then there’s the Appalachian Trail subculture, hikers of “A Walk in the Woods” vintage and Gen Z hippies of the “Wild” persuasion whom the movie quickly sketches in.
“We’ll keep an eye out,” because of course they will.
Shouting “Who’s looking for Gonker?” into the woods where the name “Gonker!” echoes toward you?
To put it simpler, EVERYONE is.
So no, “Dog Gone” isn’t a very good movie. But if you and your kids love dogs, you’d be cheating yourself by missing it.
Cast: Rob Lowe, Johnny Berchtold, Nick Peine and Kimberly Williams-Paisley.
Credits: Directed by Stephen Herek, scripted by Nick Santora, based on the book by Pauls Toutonghi. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:29