'Year of the Dog' finds audience with story of redemption and rescue

Stray dog ​​Yup’ik meets stray human Matt (Rob Grabow) in the new indie drama “The Year of the Dog,” which featured canines from Colorado. (Provided by Rob Grabow)

As a boy in the small Alaskan towns along the Iditarod Trail, Rob Grabow watched dog sleds pass by on their way to colder and even more remote environments.

Sitting still could be just as dangerous.

“I grew up around people who were struggling with addiction, so a part of me wanted to honor them, because all of my mom’s closest friends were recovering addicts,” said Grabow, the writer, producer and star of the new independent film. “The Year of the Dog”. “It’s easy for people to feel isolated or invisible, and I wanted to explore how society can have a little more space for them.”

One of those people was a childhood friend of Grabow’s, who took his own life in Alaska in September, he said. It was a painful reminder of why Grabow began making “Year of the Dog” during the pandemic, a quiet moment in cinema that landed him bigger names for the project, and an example of why recovery isn’t just possible. , but also potentially transformative as well.

“‘The Year of the Dog’ is a film about important issues: substance abuse, the special human/canine bond, and love,” wrote Oscar winner Jeff Bridges, who, like Grabow, is a recent resident of Montana, in the film press. materials “[It]addresses these in a skillful and informed manner.”

The film tells the intertwined stories of protagonist Matt (played by Grabow) and Yup’ik, a stray Husky with “an unusual athletic gift.” The two meet by chance after Matt moves into his AA sponsor’s acreage to work as a handyman. It soon becomes clear that Yup’ik and Matt have a lot to offer each other, even though they both find themselves at rock bottom. Matt, for his part, struggles to stay sober at the request of his dying mother, who just wants to see him clear-headed one more time before his death.

It’s a lean, measured character study that eschews the angsty clichés of many addiction and recovery movies, but it also asks important questions about how far people and animals can be pushed safely. What seems like a solution often isn’t.

While Grabow said he hasn’t personally battled addiction, his life experiences and the caliber of talent that surrounds him on “The Year of the Dog” tell a story that rings true. Indigenous actors Jon Proudstar (“Reservation Dogs”) and Michael Spears (Paramount+’s “1923” spinoff “Yellowstone”), and Broadway’s Aaron Finely (“Moulin Rouge,” “Rock of Ages”), play supporting roles vital, but it’s Grabow and Yup’ik’s film.

Yup’ik is played by a real-life California rescue dog named Caleb, who was hopping from home to home because he was “too much of a dog” and “too energetic,” Grabow said. That gave him an unpredictable and deeply endearing personality. Other dogs in the film come from Berthoud’s Tru North Kennels, a working and show dog breeder that provided Malamutes Sampson (played by real-life dog Buckaroo Bonzai) and Joyful (real name: Joyful Mountain), as well as the mix . -Race Mars (real name: Red Rock Mars Ruler).

A real-life rescue dog, Caleb, played the lead canine role in Rob Grabow’s independent drama “The Year of the Dog.” (Provided by Rob Grabow)

“When Matt decides to have Yup’ik lift (for Iditarod training), people disagree with him and say, ‘Maybe you’re putting him in danger,’” he said. “I wanted to explore the idea of ​​something that internally feels good, but externally makes people question you.”

Given the Iditarod component, Grabow also turned to Terry Reed, the Colorado president of the International Pulldown Association, to help bring in dogs from not only Colorado but also Michigan and Montana for relevant scenes. When “The Year of the Dog” opened in theaters in Grand Junction and Colorado Springs on February 24, Grabow also partnered with the Grand Rivers Humane Society and the Humane Society Pikes Peak Region, respectively, to donate 5% of the proceeds net from movie theaters to support his cause. He did the same for each city in which the film was released.

That ended up being more than he had anticipated. Grabow assumed the $150,000-budget production of it would go straight to streaming platforms, but a handful of positive test projections and national distribution allowed it to open on 100 screens simultaneously. In some markets, including the small Montana towns where Grabow shot most of the movie, it opened at #1, even if that only meant 30 people per showing.