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Black Dog ★★



Director: George Jaques

Cast: Jamie Flatters, Keenan Munn-Francis, Nicholas Pinnock

Released: London Film Festival 2023

Road trip movies thrive on the ever-changing setting of their stories, breezily transporting audiences from one location to the next. Although, it’s no secret that the characters’ emotional journeys, rather than their physical ones, are often more significant. If executed well, this subgenre can become a vehicle for great comedy, affecting drama and powerful coming-of-age stories. In his directorial debut, Black Dog, George Jaques hopes that his addition to the popular subgenre can do the same.

In his debut, the writer-director tells the story of two teenage boys from London, Sam (Keenan Munn-Francis) and Nathan (Jamie Flatters), who are getting ready to embark on a journey up North. Nathan is heading to Scotland hoping to reunite with his sister after being separated from her in the care system, while Sam is doing something for his Mum but remains sketchy on the details. After a chance encounter, followed by the realisation that they previously went to the same school, the pair decide to team up and travel together.

As the pair set off on their journey, Black Dog quickly employs many familiar tropes of the road trip subgenre. There are disputes over directions, overnight pit stops and plenty of unexpected diversions. These more clichéd plot points would be easier to forgive if the passengers on this cinematic journey were a more enjoyable company. Still, unfortunately, it’s hard to warm to either of them. This is mainly an issue with Nathan; he’s a young man with a lot of rage, and considering his family history, understandably so. However, watching how he directs this aggression at others is entirely unwarranted and quite infuriating. This does nothing but repel the audience from both him and his story. Sam, on the
On the other hand, he is far more amiable. Yet, at first, not enough of his character is revealed to allow viewers to become particularly invested or endeared to him.

So, as this slightly charmless duo attempts to steer this tired road trip premise to success, Black Dog struggles to become engaging. Two stories are being told here – one of mental health and one of a broken family – and in principle, each has value, ultimately leading to emotional moments of catharsis. However, when these moments finally arrive, they do so with little impact due to the poor characterisation and weak development that has preceded them. Because, in failing to initially get audiences invested in either character or their respective stories deeply enough, when the film wants viewers to have a strong emotional response to them, it’s too big of an ask.

It’s unfortunate because despite the two main characters lacking the necessary appeal to be the focus of a film like this and their development feeling slightly questionable, both leading actors impress, as Nathan, Jamie Flatters – who also writes the screenplay alongside Jaques – convincingly portrays a young man who lives by his own set of rules, directly shaped by his challenging experiences. And while Nathan’s repetitive rage is undeniably grating to watch, it is so because Flatters commits to it wholeheartedly. The same can be said of Keenan Munn-Francis, who portrays Sam. He effectively brings this young man’s anxiousness to the screen and continues to shine in the scenes of greater emotional intensity. Therefore, with more thoughtful writing for their characters and the film, these strong performances could have been a highlight among many. Instead, they’re one of the film’s few saving graces.

So, while Black Dog is an undoubtedly well-intentioned debut that strives to tell admirable, essential stories, its genre conventions and unappealing characterisations prevent it from truly excelling. Jaques certainly has more flourish to his direction than his writing, showing much promise in this element of his filmmaking for the future. However, for now, his underwhelming road trip debut may have audiences asking, “are we there yet?” long before the film eventually arrives at its final, somewhat disappointing destination.

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