Sassy city teenager Madison (Dora Madison Burge) reluctantly moves to the country to live with her grizzled grandpa Billy (Lance Henriksen) who secretly struggles to maintain his ranch. Around the same time Billy reluctantly shelters a former cattle dog named Scout (Karlie Dahle, yes the dog has a surname) who, traumatized by the death of her mate, has lost the will to work or do much of anything. No-nonsense Billy pegs Scout as useless, a broken tool, but Madison sees in her a spark that if kindled with patience and love could lead her to triumph at the Dog Agility Competition and win the prize money they need to save the ranch.
The general rule of thumb with animal movies pairs young boys with dogs, e.g. Lassie Come Home (1943) or My Dog Skip (2000), and little girls with horses often competing in some kind of race or contest, e.g. National Velvet (1944) or Dreamer (2005). My Dog the Champion flies in the face of this unofficial tradition, pairing a problematic pooch with a tenacious teenage heroine though once again a competition provides the feel-good climax. Produced in association with the American Dog Rescue, this low-budget indie marks the directorial debut of cinematographer and special effects technician Kevin Nations co-directing with his wife Robin Nations, a more seasoned filmmaker with drama The Water's Edge (2006) and family film Angel Dog (2011) on her resume. Based out of San Antonio, Texas the duo fly the flag for regional American filmmaking.
Lance Henriksen might seem like an odd choice for a family movie but his gravel-voiced gravitas brings some grit to the story. His young co-star Dora Madison Burge, a familiar face for fans of the television series Friday Night Lights, proves especially charismatic as the quirky and personable heroine sharing great chemistry with all the principal players, both human and canine. Like all good animal movies the story is not really about the dog and more concerned with exploring the various relationships forged whilst coaching Scout to a shot at the big prize. At first Madison latches onto Scout as an excuse to hang out with handsome dog trainer Eli (Cody Linley, who was also in My Dog Skip) but grows increasingly involved in re-building her confidence. Madison's arc charts a familiar transition from spoiled city brat to considerate country gal via the usual route of hard work, tough love and some harsh life lessons.
It is nothing you have not seen before on Sunday tea-time television but played here with pleasing earthiness and winning sincerity. Madison's easygoing relationship with her grandfather never falls back on contrived melodrama and the film yokes great mileage from an array of warm, faceted, well developed characters with relatable flaws and personal problems. The story is undeniably slight including a climactic competition that really should have been punchier and more suspenseful but makes up for in low key charm, including a nicely drawn teenage romance, what it lacks in dramatic weight. There is also a faint yet perceptible attack on the lack of financial support for families of soldiers serving overseas.