Movie Review: Buddy The Deep Bond Between People and Service Dogs
By Wesley Morris March 19, 2019
The Dutch documentary director Heddy Honigmann is a humanist. She listens to the ignored, sympathizes with the lonely and can ask questions so leading that when her subjects give her a skeptical look before trying to answer, she has to laugh, almost out of embarrassment. This is to say that she’s also human. And she’s been that way for most of her long, indicting career, which is now in its fourth decade. The indictments tend to be aimed at oppressive systems, in Europe and South America (she was born in Peru), that excel at squeezing the humanity out of citizens and refugees alike.
But the only squeezing being done in “Buddy,” her newest movie — opening Wednesday at Film Forum — involves service dogs and the people they serve. The movie follows six people in the Netherlands who have come to rely on the professionalism and unconditional loyalty of their dogs. The animals help them cope with mood swings and depression, blindness and post-traumatic stress. One dog opens and closes kitchen drawers and can fetch paper from the printer. The movie is warm, observant, mildly philosophical and deeply curious about the daily and inner lives of both the people and their four-legged assistants.
Another director might have made something more explanatory: Here is how the service industry works. Another director might have attempted a rant about what doesn’t constitute qualification for canine service. Another director might have just given you 86 minutes of licks and snouts. But Honigmann gets right down to the matter of emotional connection in just a shot or two. She wants to understand the symbiosis between, say, young Zeb and his labradoodle, Utah. She asks him what Utah does for his autism, and he actually shuts off the computer game he’s been playing to do some ruminating on how his dog reroutes him away from anger.
The most compelling stories here are the two that occupy a majority of the film. One belongs to Trevor, a veteran injured on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He witnessed horrors he can’t forget and now moves through the world in physical and psychological discomfort. But Trevor’s wife, Patricia, says his dog, a striking, powerfully alert sentinel named Mister, has been the glue that’s helped keep their family intact. Mister stands watch whenever they’re out together and, we’re told, can sense when Trevor’s on the verge of a flashback. The camera lingers longer on Trevor’s faraway looks than on any particular dog.
The other is that of a fit, 80-something woman named Edith, who for many years rode horses and lives with her dog, Makker. Edith lost her sight as a girl in an explosion in Germany, and some of the fascination she stirs arises from how independent she seems. (Friends, she says, have kept their distance because her life appears so ordinary.) But there’s also something about her resolve (and her energy). In one of the opening shots, she’s running on a wooded trail alongside Makker, like he might be walking her.
Honigmann asks questions both earnest and absurd yet doesn’t cut them, presumably because she knows, at this point, how to ask the right absurd question. Here, her inquiries yield good answers about love and devotion and dog heaven. And Zeb’s mother confesses to something that felt profound to me about what Utah can do for her son that she just can’t as a human being. The dog has more patience than she does. I’m using “service dog” here. But we sometimes call these creatures guides, too. And Honigmann certainly shows them patiently guiding people to doctor visits and through crowds at a heavy metal festival, guiding them onto trams. But without a millimeter of overreach, her movie convinces you that the dogs have kept these people away from overwhelming bleakness by also guiding them into the light.