It is the mid-twentieth century in Sweden, and for little Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) he is worrying about what he didn't tell his mother (Anke Lidén). Plenty of people die, he knows that, take that boy who went to America for a kidney transplant and died anyway, or what about Laika? She was the dog sent up into space by the Russians and they never bothered to bring her back down, she expired up there, orbiting the world in her little capsule, starving to death. Ingemar has a pet dog and he cannot imagine what he would do if anything befell her, but his mother has been increasingly bedridden recently, unable to cope with him and his brother who are like any boys that age: boisterous. He might have to go away for a while...
My Life as a Dog, or Mitt liv som hund as it was titled in Swedish, was a surprise hit around the world in the mid-nineteen-eighties, with audiences of many nations warming to the tale of a little boy's misadventures as he comes to terms with the happiness life can bring, but also the pain he must suffer along the way. It was remembered as a comedy in the minds of those who watched it, and it was very funny in places in a very Scandinavian manner, but what was not so well recalled was it played out in tragedy for long stretches of the narrative, because our pint-sized hero is in danger of becoming an orphan. His father has not passed away as far as we know, but it is clear he is well out of the picture, and now his mother is ailing.
They tell him his father is a sailor at sea, which may be true or it may be to spare his anxieties thanks to a separation or illegitimacy, so Ingemar does rely on his mother, and the more we see of her, literally collapsing in tears at one point after one particularly humungous row, the more we understand she is not long for this world. The other adults in the picture perceive that as well, so twenty minutes in he must leave his hometown behind and move in with his Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen) and his wife up in the north of the country, a quiet town where director Lasse Hallström laid on the quirk like treacle. By all rights this should have been resistible, yet somehow the agonies Ingemar must contemplate proved an effective contrast.
It was a delicate balancing act, but everyone involved exuded a confidence that they were going about telling their story in precisely the correct way, and after a while you began to believe them. The sexual humour in a film that could very easily be enjoyed by children might have made non-Swedes balk, but there was little explicit, just a touch of fleeting nudity, and it was delivered with good humour that helped the portrayal of a well-rounded boyhood as the child falls in love, not really understanding his feelings or those of the girls who fall for him, and develops an interest in grown women, nothing lewd but a curiosity about one of the workers in the village glassworks, Berit (Ing-Marie Carlsson), who a local artist has persuaded to pose nude, and Gunnar is harbouring a secret passion for.
Not that he acts upon it, as the observations were refreshingly generous, accepting folks with all their idiosyncrasies as just how people are, not judging anyone harshly. Indeed, the harshest aspect was the business involving Ingemar's mother which was not soft-pedalled at all, she is dying and there is nothing he can do about it, and his regrets that he either could not save her or even cheer her up as she lay in bed feeling terrible are boiling away inside him, eventually erupting in the dramatic finale. But as much as him, the other characters would stay in your mind as well, yes, they were a shade too studied in their eccentricity, but they were put across with affection, from the bit parts such as the man who spends all his spare time hammering nails into his roof which he is convinced needs constant repair, to the more substantial, such as Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), the tomboy who befriends Ingemar and feels closer to him than he can really deal with. If it wouldn't leave you in floods of tears, joyful or otherwise, My Life as a Dog had gentle charm. Music by Björn Isfält.