Directorial premiere of television actor blends genres of comedy, drama

In Sun Dogs, the directorial debut from “Once Upon a Time” star Jennifer Morrison, there is a compelling narrative that emphasizes the struggle of a young man trying to find his purpose. While some may see a cliché, Morrison does a phenomenal job making this typical plot line shine. 

Sun Dogs follows wannabe United States Marine Ned Chipley, played brilliantly by Michael Angarano. Ned, who also suffers from a brain injury, is inspired to save people still three years after the attacks on 9/11. After being denied from the Marines for the third time, however, Ned becomes the head of a fake secret operations unit named “Sun Dogs.” 

This made-up unit is fabricated by Master Sergeant Jenkins—played by Alvin Joiner, also known as rapper Xzibit—who wants a persistent Ned off his back. Along the way, Ned partners up with casino dweller Tally Petersen—played by Melissa Benoist—as the two investigate fake crimes in an attempt to exonerate terrorism on the home front.

Regardless of whether or not Ned’s direct objectives are valid, how each character grows through Ned’s journey of self-discovery is inspiring. The captivating supporting characters have their own dreams like Ned, but they hold themselves back. Petersen wants to go to film school, but doesn’t believe in herself. Ned’s mother, Rose Chipley—played by Allison Janney—wants to become an Emergency Medical Technician, but doesn’t have the motivation to go to school for it.

A highlight of the film is not only Ned’s character—who clearly inspires Rose and Tally to follow their true desires— but the way in which Morrison presents Ned’s narrative and mindset.

The first scene evokes a war film. Ned sleeps on the floor, trains intensely and has war flashbacks. He appears to be a veteran with post-traumatic-stress-disorder. Yet, the next scene demonstrates that these symptoms are just products of Ned trying to live out his dream. The flashbacks are actually fantasies.

The perspective shifts back and forth into Ned’s psyche as it examines this caveat and others. At some points in the film, however, the audience might experience difficulties appreciating the movie for what it appears to be and what it is trying to do.

Script-wise, the way the narrative unravels occasionally becomes a little too glaringly obvious. Conversely, one could argue that this heavy-handedness reflects how Ned’s mind works; he puts the pieces of his life together in a way that is literal and direct, like the story. 

For example, the reference to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye represents an apt metaphor for Ned’s motives. This comparison aligns Ned with Holden Caulfield—Salinger’s protagonist who wants to catch children in a rye field before they fall off a cliff. For Ned to exclaim that he wants to be a “catcher in the rye” like Holden is a little too obvious and somewhat misses the mark. 

The ending of the film, when the tiny items that Ned collects all intricately lead up to resolve his story, similarly feels a little obvious. This conclusion is an aspect a viewer cannot overly criticize. The blatant manner in which Ned connects the pieces and how clearly they relate to each other reflects his way of thinking. The audience could appreciate this approach as artistic, rather than exclusively entertaining.

Even though Ned’s story may seem dour, Morrison skillfully balances the heaviness of a drama with the lightheartedness of a comedy. Sun Dogs finds a perfect line that allows a viewer to take the film seriously, while still not taking too many things to heart. 

Morrison’s first directed feature film is an amazing feat full of fairly fleshed out characters. If Sun Dogs is any indicator of what she will do next, it is definitely exciting to look forward to her future productions.

Sun Dogs is available on Netflix as of Friday April 6.