Peggy, the unraveling middle-aged secretary at the center of Mike White’s Year of the Dog, has a lot going on in her face, none of it definitive. As played by Saturday Night Live’s Molly Shannon, this pet-loving single woman alternates a tentative half-smile (placatory, with a touch of incomprehension or even distaste) ­with a slight frown (bewilderment, or maybe disapproval). Her sharp nose perennially looks as if it’s about to quiver in fear, or perhaps disgust. When, at last, Peggy discovers her life’s true calling, she enthuses, “It’s nice to have a word that can describe you. I’ve never had that.” It’s not every movie that can turn veganism into a parable of self-discovery.

Like Jennifer Aniston’s vaguely unhappy wife in Miguel Arteta’s excellent The Good Girl (which White wrote) or almost anyone in White’s well-stocked closet of ambiguously lost souls, Peggy leads a stultifying existence on the periphery of other people’s lives. She brings unsolicited doughnuts to the office and listens to everyone’s troubles, though nobody listens to hers, even when her beloved dog Pencil dies under mysterious circumstances and the world as she knows it falls apart. Life is about to grow more interesting, but if you know your Mike White, you won’t be expecting a handsome stranger to take her away from all this. Peggy’s romantic hopes are raised and dashed twice, but her horizons are wickedly broadened by a friendship with Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a preternaturally empathic animal-shelter worker of uncertain sexual preference who brings her a less quiescent new pet and sows in her the seeds of animal activism.

PETA people with raised hackles should count to 10 before they show up at the multiplex brandishing paint thinner. Depending on how you look at it — and White leaves you a ton of interpretive legroom — Year of the Dog is either the story of the making of a fanatic or a redemptive tale of a lonely woman finding fulfillment. It’s both, and more besides — a reality-based fairy tale of Southern California as a sun-kissed land filled with normal-looking obsessives, of whom Peggy is by far the least doctrinaire going in. Her drippy boss (Josh Pais) thinks of nothing but the promotion he believes he deserves. Her buoyant best friend Layla (Regina King) is hell-bent on getting married to the wrong guy. Her brother (Tom McCarthy) and sister-in-law (a very funny Laura Dern) are hyperparents from hell. And her friendly neighbor (John C. Reilly) — the only one who doesn’t try to jolly poor Peggy out of her grief — turns out to be the enemy on a wholly unexpected front. So Peggy gets assertive in ways that will prove to be her undoing and her rebirth as a woman of purpose.

Many will mistake White’s slow, willfully inexpressive directing style for sluggishness. His comedy, which floats in some indeterminate space between empathy and sadism, is always poker-faced and tinged with quiet desperation. I can’t think of a single laugh-out-loud moment in any of his movies, unless it be a brief scene in The Good Girl when Zooey Deschanel’s salesgirl rings up a customer, hands her her change and says sweetly, “Fuck you very much.” So oppressive is Peggy’s world — Year of the Dog is the best evocation I’ve seen of how much worse it is to be depressed in a sunny climate — that when she finally loses control, it feels more like catharsis than madness, and a form of dissidence from the American way of converting every aspect of life into work. Her containment toward the end of the movie reminded me eerily of the tragic final scene in Belgian director Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, when an unhinged executive is brought back into the fold of the stifling life he was trying to escape. Only here, there’s a twist ending in which Peggy gets to say her own fuck-you-very-much — by finding an obsession that fits and, in the process, liberating those around her from theirs.

YEAR OF THE DOG | Written and directed by MIKE WHITE | Produced by JACK BLACK, DEDE GARDNER and BEN LECLAIR | Released by Paramount Vantage | ArcLight, The Grove, AMC Century City and Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex

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Trailer for Year of the Dog

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