Director Kriv Stender’s all-ages ode to the power and personality of a great pooch trots a fine line between sentiment and sop and consistently lands on the right side of the border. Inspired by the story of a stray kelpie in the ’70s who became an adored member of the small-town mining community of Dampier in Western Australia, where a bronze statue exists in his honour, Red Dog taps into the spirit of old school Australiana with infinitely more grasp of the national ethos than anything slapped together by Baz Luhrmann.

Red Dog, irresistibly “played” by a two-year-old kelpie called Koko, is both the film’s protagonist and the main plank in its central framing device. RD is on death’s (doggie) door when we first meet him; a stranger (Luke Ford) has driven into town and sits down at the pub for a brew. He is quickly regaled with stories from the locals about how the dog has changed their lives.

Stenders throws the film into a circular rhythm, darting back and forwards and curving between different stories and lives. The heartiest segment is devoted to Red Dog’s one true “owner”, a vagabond American named John (Josh Lucas), and his love interest with Nancy (Rachael Taylor). Their romance never finds much gravity, largely because Stenders and his writers are reluctant to hand the show over to them.

Red Dog’s trailer uses the line “sometimes you don’t choose your dog … sometimes your dog chooses you” and that’s as great a call for the barf bag as anything in advertising land, but in the context of the film it gets away with it. Stenders handles moments of death and pathos with restraint, tinged in about the right amount of sun-baked gloss.

This watch-that-name director is following in the footsteps of Rolf de Heer as Australia’s anti-auteur filmmaker. Red Dog is worlds apart from Stender’s magnum opus, the dark one short drama Boxing Day (2007), just as it is from his claustrophobic period piece Lucky Country (2009) and quirky indie The Illustrated Family Doctor (2005). Like Josh, a traveller who never stays in one spot for more than a couple of years, Stenders evidently needs to keep moving.

The details: Red Dog is playing in selected cinemas nationally.