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Pick of the Litter
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jay Seaver

"Very good dogs."
3 stars

The description for "Pick of the Litter" talks about following five puppies on "their quest to become guide dogs", but it's important to remember that they're puppies; if they have a quest, it's for scratches on their heads and treats in their bellies, with scratches on their bellies also very welcome. It can sometimes make for an odd experience for the audience, as it can sometimes be hard to keep one's eyes on the long-term goal.

It starts with five Labrador puppies being born at the Guide Dogs for the Blind kennel. Given a set of alliterative names - Potomac, Patriot, Phil, Primrose, and Poppet, they'll spend the first two months of their lives at the kennel before being farmed out to volunteer puppy-raisers, who will do some training but mostly help the dogs get used to being around people. At about 16 months, those who have not been weeded out of the program - only about 300 of the 800 GBD puppies born in a year make it all the way to being guides - will return to the kennel for more advanced training. If they pass their tests at the end of that time, they will be matched with visually-impaired people like Janet (whose third dog has recently retired) and Ronald (blind since birth and looking to live a more active life).

It's a testament to the skill of the filmmakers that Pick of the Litter often winds up just the right amount of disconcerting, in that it will often show how wonderful it is that dogs are bright and adorable and energetic while the story being told is of how guide dogs are, in a way, manufactured, with a rigid process that pulls some out to be breeders and makes every bond for the first two years of these dogs' lives temporary and oriented to a measured, serious end. It's absurd enough to talk about dogs being "career changed" that you almost root for them proving to be bad guide dogs: Go sniff those other dogs' butts, Potomac! You're still a good boy even if this organization decides you're not cut out for a job you never asked for!

Of course, that's not really what most people watching the movie will want, and the filmmakers quick to focus on just what a huge change a guide dog can make in the life of a visually-impaired person. The audience is given a chance to marvel at what even guide dog puppies manage, and when one sees things like "intelligent disobedience" (a dog refusing to obey its master's instructions, and even doing the opposite, to keep him or her out of danger), it's hard not to be impressed. It's worth noting that the way that directors Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr. present this is kind of curious: The film doesn't show a lot of actual training so much as the evaluation afterward - those interested in how a rambunctious puppy becomes a disciplined working dog will only see the outline of the process, not the details.

Still, given that high-level goal, the film is impressively nimble, juggling a lot of human and canine personalities in not a lot of time. The five main dogs are all delightfully energetic and friendly enough to make the audience see them as little hams for a while, and the movie is fortunate enough that they are, at least temporarily, matched with humans who are more than all business. Nachman & Hardy do a nice job of seizing on which of the stories are going to be the most interesting and finding ways to be at the right place at the right time over the course of their 18-month shoot, along with eventually figuring out how to let people who will be in and out of the movie in ten or fifteen minutes make an impact without hijacking or deadening their film.

There's a great deal of charm to "Pick of the Litter"; it's full of wonderful doggies who are downright helpful on top of being cute. But there's also something a bit oddly calculated about it, as though the filmmakers are trying just hard enough to step around the parts that may raise an eyebrow that you can't quite miss that effort, making it a little harder to just immerse yourself in these good boys and girls going above and beyond to be man's best friend.

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originally posted: 09/21/18 08:27:42
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  DVD: 04-Dec-2018


  31-Aug-2018 (G)
  DVD: 04-Dec-2018

Directed by
  Dana Nachman
  Don Hardy Jr.

Written by
  Dana Nachman


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