By Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor, In Military. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force
As part of her birthday activities, my youngest daughter recently asked me to take her to see A Dog’s Way Home, currently in theaters nationwide. As a father of three, I have seen my fair share of saccharine kids’ shows over the years. But as the father of a family of self-proclaimed dog lovers and movie lovers, this flick was a win for the whole family.
What I didn’t expect, however, was a parable on veteran homelessness and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) subtly hidden just below the sugary-sweet score and sentimental dialogue. In fact, it hit me so hard that the first thing I did upon leaving the theater was visit the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to see if the director, Charles Martin Smith, was a veteran. He’s not.
To be clear, A Dog’s Way Home is not an official sequel to A Dog’s Purpose. (That would be A Dog’s Journey, due in theaters this August.) But it was written by the same screenwriters, W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon.
I know. All of these recent “dog point of view” films can get confusing. Personally, I’m excited for A Dog’s Mortgage, A Dog Does His Taxes and A Dog’s Nightly Sojourn with the Refrigerator.
How a Dog’s Way Home Leads to A Veteran’s Way Home
A Dog’s Way Home starts predictably enough: The protagonist, an adorable pitbull mix puppy named Bella, voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard, is adopted and raised by a compassionate young man named Lucas. He is a Veterans Affairs case worker at the Denver VA hospital. Lucas lives with his mother, a Post 9/11 combat veteran suffering from PTSD, played by Ashley Judd.
In a key scene, Lucas brings Bella to the VA hospital where several veterans in a PTSD therapy session draw strength from Bella’s presence. This visit allegedly occurred in the days before service animals were commonplace.
Ultimately, Lucas and Bella run afoul of Denver’s “no pitbull” ordinance and have to relocate beyond the city limits. However, before this event happens, Lucas trains Bella to “go home” if she is ever outside alone and risks being captured and euthanized.
While Lucas and his girlfriend, played by the amazing Alexandra Shipp, search for a new home outside Denver, Bella is forced to stay with family friends in New Mexico. However, Bella runs off and what follows is her incredible journey across hundreds of miles of wilderness to go home.
How A Dog’s Way Home Deals with Veterans’ Issues
Those of us raised in the 1970s or ’80s will be hit with a wave of nostalgia from the era of Benji, once the most beloved dog in America. Indeed, A Dog’s Way Home is perhaps most similar to 1987’s Benji the Hunted, in that the nature cinematography in both films is breathtaking.
During the course of Bella’s adventures, she encounters a homeless Vietnam-era veteran who says “They gave me dog tags, too” in a scene that can be difficult to watch for those of us familiar with the emotional challenges in the veteran community.
The movie wants audiences to know that for many of us veterans, we often feel discarded after we have served our purpose. The Veterans Administration has made vast improvements since the days of the Phoenix VA scandal. However, there is still an undercurrent of alienation from the larger civilian community that we, as veterans, swore to protect.
The film incorporates real veteran issues without turning into a preachy, veteran-centric saga. After all, it is still a kids’ movie.
But I wish more films would use veterans in a positive and educational way. The plot of A Dog’s Way Home deftly combines veterans, civilians and animals in a pizza of sorts, where every ingredient is distinct and unique, but still contributes to a delicious whole.
Critics may say that the writers of A Dog’s Way Home are guilty of oversimplifying the very complex issues of veteran homelessness and PTSD. To them I say, “Lighten up! It’s a kids’ movie.” If you want a deep dive into the issues, there are excellent documentaries on the subject of veteran homelessness.
I’m content that veterans were portrayed so positively in a film that could very easily have written veterans out of the story completely.
Despite rapid pacing and some questionable CGI work midway through the film, there is real emotion to be found here. Sure, we go to the cinema to be informed or entertained, but rare is the film that has the power to move us emotionally. The filmmakers are able to avoid the trite sentimentality often found in similar films in the genre and have made this movie worth a watch.
After all, like Bella, many veterans are trying to find their way home. And while not all of us make it, we can and should celebrate those who do.