Ethan Eng enlisted his classmates in the Class of 2019 to make his debut film, Therapy Dogs. They told school officials they were making a yearbook video. They weren’t.
When you hear that a 20-year-old is making his Slamdance debut with a film called Therapy Dogs, you might think it sounds like a story about the healing power of pets. It isn’t.
Instead, Therapy Dogs is a sweet, funny, brave, and at times terrifying look at teenagers who think they’re invulnerable.
The film just premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival, where it scored a major success Friday: Eng was awarded the AGBO Fellowship, which includes a $25,000 prize and mentorship from Avengers: Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who broke into the film industry in part thanks to Slamdance, and who remain steadfast supporters of the festival.
It’s a huge and well-deserved win for a film that Eng started just over three years ago with his co-writer, co-star and friend, Justin Morrice. During Therapy Dogs, we see them take terrifying leaps, hit each other for no reason, and take their cameras to places they don’t belong to chronicle their wildly emotional last year at their suburban Toronto high school. At one point Morrice is strapped to the roof of a car.
“It was like an intense search for what our lives meant at that time,” Eng says in the latest MovieMaker podcast, which you can check out on Spotify, Apple or above. “It was a physical search as well. We put our bodies on the line. And that’s kind of the vibe when you’re at that age, where self-destruction is a big thing. And we completely embraced that.”
The film viscerally brings back all the awkwardness and casual violence of being a high school male — friends and enemies alike feel free to hit you, you do crazy things in and around cars, jumping from great heights is just a regular thing.
Why does Eng think self-destructiveness can be such a big part of high school life, particularly for guys?
“I think it’s because you don’t care whether you live or die,” he says. “For all intents and purposes, that final year of high school is your final year of life. Because after that, you’re just this, you know — you think you’re just this adult, and that nobody wants to be an adult when you’re 17. So, yeah, everyone’s just kind of in invincibility mode. Physically, you haven’t started getting older yet. Your body has continued to upgrade through all these years, and you feel invincible. But it’s also, yeah, very self-destructive. And it’s a bit insane.”
Also insane: “promposals.” At no other time in your life will you publicly ask someone out, while everyone you know watches to see whether your prospective date says yes, or no, or laughs in your face. Therapy Dogs is full of them.
“These promposals felt like a funeral march,” Eng dryly observes.
Eng got incredible access to his classmates — at parties, on top of cars, during promposals — because they had known him for years as the kid who always had a camera. Eng combines real events with staged ones so effectively that by the end of the film, you have no idea what really happened and what didn’t. But one moment, in particular, is horrifying. I gasped.
One of the nice things about Therapy Dogs is that unlike most films making a stir at festivals, it’s available for anyone to watch right now, through Slamdance’s new streaming site, The Slamdance Channel. The film is getting attention not only out of Slamdance, but also in and around Eng’s suburban hometown. On the day we spoke with Eng last week, Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, had just published a feature about Therapy Dogs with the headline about how he had “tricked school officials and got his debut film into Slamdance.”
Though he’s more than two years out of high school, Eng still worried that school officials wouldn’t like that. He also blurred out teachers’ faces in Therapy Dogs to make sure it didn’t appear that they had signed off on the film.
But the interactions that Eng does include with older people provide some of the highlights of the film, especially when Eng visits a strip club in search of a prom date, and when a cop catches Morrice on top of that speeding car. If, like me, you’re decades out of high school, you wonder if the cop is scolding Morrice and Eng and their friends because he’s a jerk — or because maybe, just maybe, he’s very strategically trying to scare them out of trying any more crazy stunts.
Either way, it doesn’t work.
Main image: Justin Morrice (L) and Ethan Eng in Therapy Dogs, co-written and starring Morrice and Eng and directed by Eng.
This story has been updated with Ethan Eng winning the ABGO Fellowship.