EIFF 2016: Moon Dogs Review

Regular Downton Abbey helmer Phillip John makes the leap to the big screen with this Scottish coming-of-age road trip drama.

Phillip John’s Moon Dogs tells a familiar coming-of-age story as two step-brothers make their way from Shetland to Glasgow, picking up an attractive young lady on the way who helps both of them find themselves. It sounds like a clichéd American indie fresh out of Sundance but the Celtic twist and endearing trio of performances give the film a certain level of freshness.

The two brothers are Michael (Jack Parry Jones) and Thor (Christy O’Donnell), and they both have their reasons for wanting out of Shetland. Michael’s plans to follow his girlfriend Suzy (Kate Bracken) to university in Glasgow are scuppered when he misses a crucial exam, while Thor wants to explore his musical talents that have so far proved a bit too experimental for the island. Michael starts to worry that Suzy has moved on so decides to hit the road – and sea – to Glasgow to win her back, with Thor along for the trip.

Before they’ve even made it to the mainland, they meet the beautiful and free-spirited Caitlin (Tara Lee), herself looking to go to Glasgow to pursue a singing career. Her arrival complicates things, changing the dynamic between the brothers – who aren’t the closest to being with – as both immediately take a shine to her. While Lee makes the character very likeable, Caitlin is essentially a Manic Pixie Dream Girl without much of her own drive or purpose. She seems to exist only to help Michael and Thor get to where they’re going, both literally and figuratively.

Watching the relationship play out between these three characters is compelling though, as the brothers vie for the affections of Caitlin, who is far more experienced and worldly than either of them. She’s casual about the whole scenario and seems open to sleeping with either or both of them but the confusion and jealousy inevitably leads to conflict. That tension is broken up by a good amount of genuinely funny moments, with John showing a good command of tone as the film flows nicely from drama to comedy without ever feeling forced or jarring.

The three central performances are also perfectly pitched, with Jones’ committed performance as the irritable Michael providing most of the laughs and O’Donnell’s finds pathos in the quiet, sensitive Thor. Lee is charismatic and beguiling in her own sneering, leather-jacketed way and is a welcome shot in the arm for the film, it’s just a pity that her character doesn’t have the same clearly defined ambitions and emotions as her male counterparts.

For John, Moon Dogs marks his first feature film after an impressive career in television on the likes of Outlander and Downton Abbey. He makes the most of the beautiful Scottish locations here and along with cinematographer Alasdair Walker gives the film a look that belies its presumably small budget. Though the script treads on some well-worn coming of age territory, John and his young cast do a good job of glossing over some of the bigger clichés and clunkier plot machinations. The end result is a warm and funny teen drama that marks out its director and young cast as talents to keep an eye on.