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Film Review: ‘Pick of the Litter’ is an Inspiring Dogumentary

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pick of the litter ver2Dogs really are spectacular creatures. You don’t have to own one to see this. No animal has the same bond with humans that canines do. Sure, other animals are pets, and other animals rely on us for food. However, only dogs seem to have that emotional attachment. In a very real way, they become family. That’s just the normal relationship. When you look at service dogs, the way they go above and beyond is just incredible. “Pick of the Litter,” a documentary (or “dogumentary”) that follows five puppies as they seek to become guide dogs for the blind, shows you just what they go through in order to achieve this. It takes a special breed, no pun intended. Watching this doc, you’ll find a new appreciation for these furry friends.

“Pick of the Litter” is a welcome dose of inspiration. Is it the sort of thing you’d find on Animal Planet? Sure, but sometimes you just want to watch cute animals in a darkened movie theater. Furthermore, the theatrical running length gives you time to bond with the canine characters. Things like “Lassie” have made dogs into superheroes. This documentary actually shows you the real-life heroism they’re capable of. It may not dive incredibly deeply into the process, but it’s an intriguing introduction. Moreover, it presents things in a playful enough way that it all goes down with ease.

After an opening sequence that details some guide dog heroism, including one service animal who took their human to safety down 78 flights of stairs on 9/11, we meet the pups we’ll be following. At Guide Dogs for the Blind, Labrador Retriever puppies are raised from birth to train for the gig. This litter consists of five brothers and sisters. They are Patriot, Phil, Poppet, Potomac, and Primrose. Born on the campus, they begin training, with various degrees of success. At the same time, we meet a few visually impaired folks who are awaiting word on a potential guide dog. For them, these are more than just pets. They’re more than just helpers too. They’re literally a path towards a better life.

275167315 4The doc follows along as the five go through the process. The ones that can’t cut it are “career changed,” while the best of the bunch carry on with training. Fret not, as this isn’t a “Marley and Me” style tearjerker. The saddest thing you’ll see is when a dog is moved from one trainer to another in an impersonal manner. If anything, it’s rather inspiring when you get towards the end. Watching the dogs get better and better is one thing, but seeing the impact they have on humans is another. They’re truly going above and beyond the call. There are some emotions at the end, as you’d expect, and they’re all earned.

Part of why “Pick of the Litter” works is that each dog does have a distinctive personality. From the chill Phil to the underdog (sorry, the word just fits) Patriot, you root for them. When one is “career changed” or falls behind, there’s a sense of sadness. It’s not a tearjerker, but you develop an interest in seeing these dogs succeed. The human characters aren’t as well developed, though the bond built between Patriot and a veteran with PTSD is heartwarming. If there’s a true arc, it’s that one.

Directors Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman keep things very simple. The camera follows the dogs up close and personal, observing their progress. Their direction stumbles on occasion, inadvertently spoiling details of how many dogs will graduate, for example. The humans also are, with few exceptions, upper-class white folks. The more we focus on the dogs and their journey, the better “Pick of the Litter” is.

If you’re an animal lover, “Pick of the Litter” will no doubt make you smile. Anyone who has ever been curious about guide dogs will find this rather fascinating. If the drama is low key, the curiosity factor is far stronger. When you look at your dog (if you own one like I do), you can sometimes wonder what’s on their minds. This documentary will give you a look at what’s inside their hearts.

“PICK OF THE LITTER” IS DISTRIBUTED BY SUNDANCE SELECTS AND OPENS IN THEATERS ON AUG. 31.

GRADE: (★★★)

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Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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