Friendships in small towns are often, in a word, inappropriate.
You remind the old man on the corner of himself when he was younger, or the simple lawn man tells stories about what things were like before they built the highway bypass. Your great-aunts battle for your attention. Why aren't you outside playing with kids your age? some parents holler. But the neighbors, the distant relatives, the misfits, they know stories. They help you through the incomprehension, the rage, the spite, of being small in a world of big people.
"Lawn Dogs" gets all this down and more, in its gripping look at the ferocious fantasies of Devon Stockard (Mischa Barton), a damaged 10-year-old Kentucky girl. Devon's heart is flawed, her chest scarred from the operations she's had. "I'm not afraid of blood," she says, eyes keen, words measured. "Every time they opened me up, I lost a bathtub full."
Devon lives in a mythical place called Kentucky, in a gated community called Camelot Gardens, its green rolling hills studded with Tudor-style mini-monstrosities. As the story begins, her tense, shallow parents (Christopher McDonald and Kathleen Quinlan) send her out to sell cookies to the neighbors in the complex, warning her, "Whatever you do, don't go outside the gates." Of course, Devon moves right down the highway, outside the manufactured fairy-tale suburb, exploring her new surroundings, discovering streams of coprous water and state-owned land with house trailers dropped in the middle of the wood. The local lawn man lives there, 21-year-old Trent Burns (Sam Rockwell), his 1965 Ford F100 full of battered mowers and edgers and tools he uses to ply his trade.
Trent's annoyed by his new tagalong buddy, this little girl who won't leave him be, who keeps telling him gory details from Baba Yaga fairy tales told her by her uncle who had a truck like Trent's - "He was Russian from Indiana." We soon realize that Naomi Wallace's intricate, gratifyingly perverse script has transported us to the glorious realm of Angela Carter-like fairy-tale revisionism, a place that is filled with inchoate fear and unspoken dangers. Mostly, the story resides in that part of a child's imagination we try to deny as adults - fierce, always inventing, not yet taught to forgive. As directed by John Duigan ("Flirting," "The Journey of August King"), "Lawn Dogs" simmers with an undercurrent of violence - play violence, imagined violence, hoped-for violence. Both Devon and Trent have scars, hers from surgery, his by shotgun. Both the ostracized trailer trash and the pint-size Gothic practitioner have moments of explosive orneriness, their interior lives erupting into the decorous suburb with its low-level malice. (A postman mocked for his race flings a priority package under a lawnmower; a neighbor boy menaces adult, dog and child alike with his cowboy-and-Indian games; Devon mashes a fly instead of a raisin into a cookie she's going to sell.)
Shot in Jefferson and Oldham counties, near Louisville, where Wallace was raised, "Lawn Dogs" takes place only in the topography of a storybook South. Cinematographer Elliot Davis gets the moist autumnal Kentucky light right, capturing rainy fall, blue skies and lush last grass. Devon is dressed in blue, with Barton's large eyes agleam against the like-colored sky. Duigan and Davis partake of an ardent pictorialism in other ways, with scenes like Devon in a chicken coop at night, a delicate flower spiraling in a cloud of gaggling white hens; Trent's nude jackknife off a country bridge into gleaming river flocked with ducks, into a shaft of dusty sunlight. There are shots pure and strange and perfect - Devon climbs onto the roof of her house, pulls her white nightgown over her head and it sails into the ripe blue night sky like an unspoken wish.
When her father platitudinizes, "A popular girl is never bored... or boring," wild expressions splay across the face of this supernally up-grown child. There are moments when Barton has the taut face and manic eyes of a 30-year-old woman bearing a burden of colorful madness, eager to snap.
Wallace is best known as a playwright, and this luscious slice of Kentucky Gothic has a verbal boldness that is both rare and pleasing. The aching-to-poetry language beguiles - "Daddy's gun, eh?"; "What you piss in is yours for life"; "He just mows and mows like it'll make a difference in the world" - and at moments, "Lawn Dogs" is a small classic of poetic Southern eccentricity.
Then there is the ending, unspeakably magical and wonderfully right. Fairy tales can come true, fairy princess, miraculous escapes, unlikely revenge, rivers of blood and all.