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At least, that's what Seidl wants to evoke. While I feel genuine ambivalence towards the films of his I admire, I think Dog Days tips the scales too heavily in the direction of revulsion. It's not just the way the movie exploits widespread fears of aging and dealing with the mentally ill; it's the obvious antisuburban message, which practically goads viewers into sneering at characters simply because they live in tacky prefab homes (Seidl does present some of his characters at their most desperate and vulnerable in the movie's final act, but I find these moments disingenuous). Seidl wants to show how the isolated living spaces of suburbia have alienated people from each other and made them forget all social graces. But in shooting the characters' homes as though they were zoo habitats, Seidl makes their inhabitants seem barely human. And his tableaulike compositions, however stunning, suggest that these characters are incapable of changing their lives: the misery of suburbia is total and inescapable.
I grew up in a suburb similar to the one in Dog Days in its atomized layout, and while I knew lots of shallow and graceless people there (just like I know plenty in Chicago), I didn't recognize any of them in Seidl's grotesques. My experience was closer to the benign purgatory presented by the American remake, which I caught up with this weekend at my neighborhood City North 14. In Twentieth Century Fox's Dog Days, suburban life doesn't seem lurid or perverse, but simply dull. The film's story (suggested by a novel by Jeff Kinney) concerns an unimaginative preteen boy who'd like to spend his summer vacation playing video games by himself but gets pushed by his parents into group activities he doesn't like: making crafts with the Boy Scouts, starting a reading club at home. When he briefly leaves the suburbs, he finds everything else to be as lame as the town he left behind. A trip to a beach house with his friend (a fat naif called Rowley, the film's version of Seidl's mentally ill hitchhiker) puts him uncomfortably close to the boy's weird parents, who coddle their son like a puppy and demand that everyone shares the same ice cream cone. A scout camping trip forces the hero to spend time with a bunch of squares and condescending jocks.
As in the original, many of the supporting characters are narcissists or otherwise lacking in empathy for others. The boy's vain older brother dreams of becoming a rock star, and the girl of his dreams is a spoiled brat who talks about nothing but shopping and arranging her own birthday party. A neighboring family pretends to love camping when they really don't, just so they can assume superiority over the admittedly unadventurous wimpy kid and his parents.
But unlike Seidl, director David Bowers doesn't feign an authoritative stance towards these subjects. His movie has a televisual familiarity, suggesting that suburban ennui is nothing new. And by emphasizing that the story unfolds from the perspective of a kid—and a wimpy one at that—Bowers admits to the limitations of a misanthropic worldview where Seidl did not. The remake has its own disingenuous about-face in the final act, as the boy reconciles with his father after getting in trouble. "It's OK to make mistakes," the dad says, "so long as you learn from them." Though it's trite, I find this message more digestible than the faux-compassion of "well, at least we're all miserable together," which leaves a bad taste in my mouth every time I watch Seidl's film.