In an era of dumbed-down cinema, films made for kids often suffer the worst fate, as formula stories are made even more mind-numbingly simplistic, or insidiously moronic characters – Barney, anyone? – are given free rein.
Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season comes as a breath of fresh air, and not just because of its rural West Virginia setting. Based on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s trio of books about a resilient beagle named Shiloh and the changes he engenders in the people around him, Shiloh Season looks at the complex relationship between 12-year-old Marty Preston (Zachary Browne) and Judd Travers (Scott Wilson), the dog’s abusive former owner.
An uneasy truce was established in the first Shiloh film (made by the same creative team and released in 1997), but the rancor that fuels the hard-drinking Travers drives Marty to question if people – even his paranoid, volatile neighbor – are able to change.
Marty lives a modest but comfortable small-town life with his mailman father, Ray (Michael Moriarty), homemaker mother, Louise (Ann Dowd), and two younger sisters. Easy-going and comfortable among kids and adults alike, Marty is happiest in the company of Shiloh, whom he adopted and nursed back to health.
Ray and Louise distrust the reckless Judd, who refuses to respect the "no hunting" sign on their property and drunkenly weaves his old pickup truck along the dirt roads of Friendly, W.Va. The self-destructive misanthrope begins to be seen as truly dangerous when he makes threats against the Preston family.
But an exceedingly thoughtful Marty, whose actions are disarmingly forthright, finds a way to connect with the belligerent Judd through the sage advice of the Buddhalike Doc Wallace (Rod Steiger) and the practical intervention of his no-nonsense nurse wife (Bonnie Bartlett).
Instead of hammering home the story’s positivist philosophy, screenwriter Dale Rosenbloom and director Sandy Tung soft-sell the requisite big life lessons. Their low-key approach is helped immensely by the naturalistic performances of the cast, who maintain their composure when events could easily lead to histrionics.
With the exception of town pariah Judd – who practically seethes resentment – the adults of Shiloh Season are more understanding than most people would be in their situations, and less prone to the kind of absolute declarations that start family feuds.
Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season seems shockingly old-fashioned in these cynical times, when conflict resolution invariably leads to violence, but its quiet dignity is its greatest strength.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].