White God

Zsofia Psotta and Body the mixed-breed canine make the best kid and dog team sinceMagnolia Pictures

‘White God’
Kornel Mundruczo
Stars: Zsofia Psotta, Body the dog
Rating: NR
2 (out of 5) Globes

Imagine a gritty version of the “Simpsons” episode where Santa’s Little Helper runs away and becomes a scary fighting mutt — shorn of the Laddie subplot, alas — and you essentially have “White God,” a Hungarian fable-of-sorts about a girl and her dog. The remarkable Zsofia Psotta plays Lili, a tough, resilient tween shuffled from her lousy mom and her lousy stepdad to her apparently even lousier loser divorcee dad. Her only steady in life is Hagen, a mixed-breed canine who will never leave her — except when her dad, who has no patience for dogs and is generally a hissable monster, drags him out of the car against Lili’s protests and drives off.

The image of Hagen seen through the back window, first chasing the car down then tiring out and looking around a busy street in confusion, is end-of-“Old Yeller” upsetting. In fact, it and still more horrific moments to come are even more manipulative than your standard weepie because they’re rooted in a tone that’s not only realistic but deterministically grim. Director Kornel Mundruczo shoots in handheld for authenticity (and with lots of cuts for his animal star), but the world he’s created is a pure figment — a mean-spirited version of the “Peanuts” where, instead of muffle-mouthed, every adult is cruel and heartless. And so Hagen, enjoying his own twisted version of “The Incredible Journey”/”Homeward Bound,” happens upon mangy dogcatchers, murderous pound employees and, of course, a seedy dogfight enthusiast who purchases Hagen for the express purpose of beating a sweet, eternally licking girl’s best friend into a snarling killer who could take out your larynx.

“White God” aims to root a tall tale in a grotesquely, unpleasantly grimy pessimist’s view of reality, but to what end? It’s hard coming up with a reason for its existence beyond mere emotional sadism. For what it’s worth, it’s clear, from the dreamy (or is it?) opening, that this will end up on a nicer note than, say, Lars Von Trier’s hypothetical version of same. (“Prancer in the Dark,” anyone?) And it turns out “White God” is heading for an ending more complex, even perfect in its way, than it, for most of it seems, capable of doing. There’s a deranged beauty to its third act, every bit deserving the skills of its star — not Psotta, who’s very good, but Body and Luke, the dog thespians who play Hagen, and the best of their kind since Uggie from "The Artist." Hell, the mongrels, who go from sweet to terrifying, have even got range.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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