It’s hard to know what to think when a comedy begins with flashing footage of the 9/11 attacks. But, before you cry “Springtime for Hitler,” stick around. “Sun Dogs,” Jennifer Morrison’s directorial debut, avoids an awkward irreverence by championing a singular theme: even the smallest action can make a difference in a person’s life.
All Ned Shipley (Michael Angarano) has wanted to do his whole life is help. From attacking the opposing quarterback in his cougar mascot suit in high school to deciding to enlist in the Armed Forces after watching “The Deer Hunter” with his mother’s husband, Bob (Ed O’Neil). Because of a mental condition created at birth when “the hospital fucked him up” he is turned away four times, even kicked out of the volunteer firefighters. But he refuses to stop trying.
Angarano instills Ned with a childish robotic nature, deeply serious but unable to make abstract, adult leaps of logic. He instantly wins hearts as he begins his quest to help in the fight against Al Qaeda. “Sir, I’m tired of these terrorists,” he says to Sargent Master Jenkins (Xzhibit) before adding with unbridled giddiness, “I sleep on the floor. I have field preparedness.”
The film succeeds in toeing the line between laugh-out-loud lines and potentially irreverent material like terrorism or mental health by never making fun of Ned and only occasionally overindulging him. Certain running gags involving business cards declaring himself a special operative and his care of his neighbor’s dog cheapen the character’s richness by pandering for laughs. (“Let’s go walk Waffles and find Udaay.”)
Nevertheless, he is endeared to us from the start. When Jenkins creates for him the title of “Sun Dog,” a light that shines just off to the side of the sun, and hands him a deck of cards bearing the faces of different terrorists (“Saddam is the ace of spades”), Ned’s excitement is our excitement.
However, “sun dogs usually come in pairs” and so enters Tally Peterson, played by Melissa Benoist, who acts as well as she can in an inconsistently written role. Tally lives in a trailer park and “makes a living” by scamming people at the local casino. When she meets Ned, she becomes enthralled with the idea of adventure he could offer her and mistakes his naiveté for hilarity. They are heavily compatible in their sweet oblivion but the frequent emphasis on Tally’s conniving schemes gives the character and, therefore her predominant relationship with Ned, a distracting lack of focus.
However, she provides the movie with the best metaphor: Salinger’s “A Catcher in the Rye.” She explains that a catcher in the rye saves the lives of children who falls off of cliffs, peaking Ned’s interest. “It’s…it’s not real, Ned. It’s just a fantasy job.” A perfectly-timed flash of Ned’s repeated army daydream cuts between this scene and the next, which discloses the nature of Tally’s mother’s suicide. Her note read, “If a single person says hello or asks how I am doing, I won’t kill myself today.”
Tally shrugs. “I guess no one said hello.” It’s a moment that hits Ned harder than a plane into towers.
In a brilliant sequence of shots, punctuated with the film’s creative use of typewriter sounds and a flurry of Ned’s ritual blue notecards, the film descends into one of cinema’s most momentous, yet understated endings that reminds us that you don’t need a sunny day, you just need the hope of one.
Written by Elena Burnett.