It’s been a while since we’ve had an old fashioned boy-and-his-dog movie, hasn’t it? And with the recent release of Boaz Yakin’s Max (2015), it looks like we’ll have to wait even longer before we see a good one.
The boy: Justin Wincott (Josh Wiggins), a moody rebel with an attitude. We know he has an attitude because he sports a Justin Bieber circa 2009 haircut, wears flannel and “Murrica” T-shirts, pirates expensive video games (yet curiously is such a technological luddite that he doesn’t own a cell phone), and scowls whenever weighty subjects like “duty” and “honor” are breached.
The dog: Max, a Marine Corps Belgian Malinois who loses his owner during an ambush while on assignment in Afghanistan. The incident leaves him horrifically traumatized and incapable of interacting with other soldiers. His deceased owner? Justin’s big brother Kyle (Robbie Amell).
I think we can all see where this is going. The rest of the film is a tender story about Justin bonding with Max and teaching him how to trust and love again. Through their relationship, Max finds a new home and purpose and Justin mans up, commences to properly salute the flag, and gets a girlfriend (I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I mused to myself as I left the theater that the film could have had the tagline “Get bitches, get bitches”). Max balances all of the saccharine sweetness of boy-and-his-dog movies with the time-worn themes of facing responsibility and growing up in the waning days of halcyon youth: of learning to respect your parents; of learning to truly cherish those you love; of learning how to dodge rocket-propelled grenades as you and your PTSD-stricken dog take down a gun-smuggling ring in south Texas.
Here is the film’s central failing: it isn’t sure how to properly blend the coming-of-age story with a rather serious and racially charged—though the gun-smuggling ring-leader is white, all of the rest of the smugglers are conspicuously, loudly Latino—thriller involving Mexican cartels and Afghani war crimes. The awkward love story between Justin and Carmen (Mia Xitlali), the cousin of his best friend, only furthers the uneven tone of the film. Indeed, during my screening of the film, their inevitable first embrace wasn’t met with cooing and applause but with laughter…and not the good kind.