Film Review: In “Pick of the Litter,” 5 Puppies Play on Our Heartstrings

Film poster: “Pick of the Litter”

Pick of the Litter (Don Hardy Jr./Dana Nachman, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Puppies! What’s not to like about a litter of adorable puppies? Indeed, for a dog lover, a film like Pick of the Litter seems like a cinematic dream come true, allowing the viewer a healthy 80+ minutes in the company of 5 Labrador retrievers as they are born, grow up, and train to become guide dogs for the blind. With all-access footage to their lives and those of their human handlers, this new documentary from filmmaking partners Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman (The Human Experiment) offers a remarkable in-depth look at the intricate details of how our “best friend” can be turned into our “best helper.”

Unfortunately, while the film can be charming, it too often slips into manipulative sentiment, relying too much on the cuteness factor of its subjects, and punching that up with an intrusively peppy soundtrack. It’s regrettable, as the overall arc of the narrative is compelling enough without these directorial elements. As someone who had never considered just how much work must go into the formation of service animals, I enjoyed all the new information imparted, only to then be kicked out of the story by the mise-en-scène.

Primrose, Guide Dog Puppy at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Courtesy of Sundance Selects. A Sundance Selects release.

That said, there’s more good than bad. We follow siblings Patriot, Phil, Poppet, Potomac and Primrose (each member of a litter at Guide Dogs of the Blind, in San Rafael, CA, receives names starting with the same letter) from Day 1, tracking their progress as they are placed in foster homes, sent away, trained (initially by their foster parents, and later by professional handlers) and then evaluated at set intervals. Will they all make the cut? Maybe, maybe not. Have no fear, though, as those that fail are simply adopted out to families looking for pets. It’s a win-win for animal and human, alike, as no matter what happens, everyone is happy (more or less). Despite its structural problems, then, Pick of the Litter is still mostly fun to watch. Lead on, furry friends!

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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