Back in 2019, a pair of Mississauga teens set out to film a movie in the halls of their high school. Now, the finished product, Therapy Dogs, is set to premiere at this year’s virtual edition of Slamdance. Originally founded as Sundance’s scruffy DIY counterpart, the Park City fest has since grown into a launching pad for first-time filmmakers and emerging indie artists; Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson, the Russo brothers and Bong Joon-ho are just a few of the A-list discoveries to come out of the fest.

After first starting work on Therapy Dogs at 16, writer/director Ethan Eng and co-writer/star Justin Morrice filmed the undercover coming-of-age feature during their senior year at Mississauga’s Cawthra Park Secondary School, claiming they were making a senior video for the yearbook. “We were able to capture promposals, school performances, parties. It’s this secret world that nobody but teenagers are a part of, and I hadn’t seen it in a movie before,” Eng told Complex Canada.

“None of my classmates minded me filming. I mainly just said that so I wouldn’t seem so socially awkward,” he said of the yearbook video cover story. “I don’t think it actually worked.”

Ethan Eng filming Therapy Dogs in a Mississauga school
Image via Publicist

Eng said the pair originally developed a script for the movie, “but we didn’t want that to get in the way of where the year would take us.” The resulting unauthorized “senior video” was a way for Eng and Morrice and the rest of their classmate cast and crew to work through their shared anxieties about post-high school life. “Me and Justin had no plans for the future and it felt like the world was closing in on us,” remembered Eng, calling the making of the film “therapeutic”—hence the title. “High school was a miserable experience at times, and we were able to flip it on its head and embrace it.”

“I knew I would forget these feelings, so I made this to remember it truthfully.” (The fact that Therapy Dogs was filmed pre-pandemic only adds to the time capsule vibes.)

“I think what a lot of high school movies get wrong is that you find the answers at the end. That’s really not the case. The greatest discovery we made as we were going through this is that it’s ok to not have all your answers. Growing up is a constant journey,” said Eng, pointing to movies like The Dirties – another lofi indie feature with little to no scripted dialogue set in a Mississauga high school—as a more authentic example of the high school experience.

“I may be the youngest director now, but we’re living in an age where nobody kids from Mississauga can pick up a camera and compete with Hollywood. This is only the beginning of much more to come. Mississauga will be put on the map!”

It’s no coincidence then that Eng and Morrice initially reached out to Dirties filmmakers Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller to pitch them their movie idea, who eventually signed on to Therapy Dogs as executive producers after taking the teens in for an internship. “Matt Johnson is a hero. He genuinely just wants people to make cool stuff,” said Eng, describing the time as “a very soul cleansing experience.”

“We didn’t learn anything technical, but he showed us what was special about this time in our lives. Lots of donuts, hanging out at the Silver Snail, and Spider-Man movies.”

Large play button icon

Now, they’re following in Johnson and Miller’s footsteps with their very own Slamdance premiere. Often billed as Sundance’s anti-establishment little brother, the festival was forced to pivot to online-only screenings again for 2022. (All-access passes to the fest, which runs from until Feb. 6th, are available for just $10 USD.) But that doesn’t make the virtual premiere any less exciting for Eng, who was working at a local Toronto hospital when he got that life-altering call. “The previous week I had a call with Matthew Miller giving me a heart-to-heart, encouraging me to sort my life out and to start fresh. After spending two years editing it, I was completely alone and felt that I burned through my teenage years on nothing. So when I got that call it was like the world changed,” he recalled. “I’m still in shock about it.”

Adding to the disbelief is the fact that Eng, now 20, also holds the distinction of being the competition’s youngest filmmaker to date. “I may be the youngest director now, but we’re living in an age where nobody kids from Mississauga can pick up a camera and compete with Hollywood. This is only the beginning of much more to come,” he promised, giving a shout-out to fellow Sauga native-turned-Hollywood hero Simu Liu. “Mississauga will be put on the map!”

The only part that worries Eng about his big premiere? “I’m nervous about showing it to my parents. No one wants to show their parents a scene of them going into a strip club asking strippers to prom. I’m sure my mom would be proud.”