George Jaques’ directorial debut, Black Dog, charts the touching journey of two teenagers on a road trip as they face the rocky transition to adulthood.
For director-writer George Jaques and his co-writer Jamie Flatters (Avatar: The Way of Water), Black Dog has been in the works for years. First starting on the film in 2019 when they were 18-years-old, Jaques’ feature film directorial debut has moved from the stage to the screen, culminating in an evocative road trip movie that sees two Londoners travel north to Scotland. Jaques and Flatters respectfully handle heavy subjects such as eating disorders, suicide, depression, and insert them into wider portrayals of grief and belonging. Black Dog’s journey can feel overstretched at times, but the writers’ care and attention to detail are admirable.
We start in Brixton, South West London, with Nathan (Flatters) spending a final night in his foster home on the eve of his eighteenth birthday. He plans to run away to Scotland to live with his sister. He sees Sam (Keenan Munn-Francis), a 17-year-old schoolboy, being mugged in an alleyway, fighting off the attackers. The two young men part ways and move on, each with their own personal baggage. A chance encounter the next morning sees the two embark on the road trip; Sam, setting out to scatter the ashes of his recently deceased mother in Scotland, offers a lift to Nathan.
Before Black Dog’s plot moves from urban London to the grey motorways of England, Jaques vividly sketches the capital city on screen with the same vivacity as Sarah Gavron did in Rocks (2019). Both Brixton-based films show the bustling area of London authentically. Due to its story, Black Dog swiftly moves away from this setting, and here the relationship between Nathan and Sam grows, whilst their own personal struggles come to the fore gradually. Black Dog plays its cards close to its chest for the most part, an admirable trait that allows the drama to envelop the viewer slowly and carefully.
Jaques and Flatters show maturity in their handling of intense themes, but the way they include them can be clumsy. Scenes frequently lurch with uncomfortable, jarring tonal shifts; dialogue is often crammed in to tick off certain storylines, and rarely organically. In general, the dialogue is one of Black Dog’s weaker aspects, with a stilted disconnect arising even within scenes. Black Dog too often values broad, obvious strokes that feel overly sentimental, but there are smaller, more nuanced moments that shine, such as when Jaques poignantly observes the two boys’ feet overlapping in bed. When these examples do come, it is invigorating and affecting.
The central road trip of Black Dog provides a blank canvas for Nathan and Sam’s stories to come to the fore. They are still young, but, as Nathan points out, they have both had experiences far beyond their years. Jaques keenly reminds us that whilst the two teenagers are very different people, they are both still just big kids, both in need of support structures. The chemistry between Flatters and Munn-Francis is powerful, with the latter in particular turning in a nuanced and fully emotive performance, in keeping with his more reserved character of Sam.
However, this blank canvas gives way to repetition, whereby some conversations come across as necessary and others feel like filler. Some scenes are evocative, others feel tacked on, even with the film’s runtime of only 96 minutes. The end destination of Black Dog is brilliant, but the journey, whilst welcomely complex, feels long and laboured. Much like a seven hour car journey, there are memorable moments, but also arduous elements that can feel frustrating and unwanted.
Black Dog had its World Premiere at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on 14-15 October. Read our list of 25 movies to watch at the 2023 London Film Festival!