“Side by Side,” which looks at today’s Russia from — literally — a dog’s p.o.v., is eerie, unsettling and riveting. One-of-a-kind debut feature from Kiev-born scripter-helmer Yana Drouz is practically wordless but speaks volumes. Animal lovers and students of contemporary Russian cinema should bark in unison.
Pic’s brave approach is to portray events in Moscow and vicinity as a resourceful and self-reliant German shepherd experiences them, incorporating what may be the woofer’s memories of puppydom or his fantasies of what an ideal life on four legs might entail — including a stint behind the wheel of a car.
Sensation of receiving the world through a dog’s sensory mechanisms is immeasurably enhanced by manipulation of the soundtrack: Important ambient sounds are suitably crisp, but human speech is subdued and muffled, communicating a tantalizing, never-quite-clear grasp of human maneuverings.
Clever, sometimes off-kilter lensing enables us to watch the dog and cover ground as he does from a low, roving camera angle. Technique could prove annoying to viewers who don’t “get” the device, but cumulative effect is odd, engrossing and sometimes funny.
After eluding dog-catchers and ingeniously springing his Great Dane girlfriend and pals from the pound, the German shepherd roams a desolate, overcast city where cold, resigned humans scavenge. People and even other dogs look somewhat silly in comparison to the appealingly assured hero.
About 25 minutes in, the mutt gravitates toward a lonely boy whose parents fail to address their son’s distress. Dog and boy gradually bond in a realm beyond human speech and way beyond tired ideology, where smarter-than-average kindred spirits find comfort.
Using mostly non-pro thesps and a cast of perky dogs, Drouz creates a slightly mysterious, believable universe that champions both love and freedom. Music ranges from classical standards to ominous electronic rumblings and from violin musings to an a cappella choir.
Russian title translates literally as “heel” but with a kindly spin akin to “stick close to me.”