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Film Review: Pick of the Litter

Sarah Ward

Following five Labrador puppies in training to become guide dogs, this straightforward documentary is both charming and standard.
Film Review: Pick of the Litter

Across most of Pick of the Litter’s opening moments, five Labrador puppies make their way into and through the world. They yawn, stretch and try to open their tiny eyes when they’ve been breathing for mere moments. Eager to explore everything around them, they scamper and play when they’re days older. Born at Guide Dogs for the Blind, named Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose and Phil, and destined to be trained as support animals, they meet the helpful humans who’ll oversee the 20-month teaching process. At every step along the way, one specific emotion emanates from the screen. Exclaiming with affection at these cute canines is simply a reflex – and it’s often vocalised within the documentary, too.

That reaction – the audible, instinctive “awwws” uttered from those within and watching Pick of the Litter alike – conveys much of what needs to be said about this film. It’s a movie that instantly and easily evokes a response, but one that lets its innately adorable subjects do ample heavy lifting. Filmmakers Don Hardy Jr. (Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents) and Dana Nachman (Batkid Begins) could’ve simply pointed their cameras at the documentary’s chosen dogs, jettisoned context and likely garnered similar tender feelings, although that’s not the path they take. Still, this observational effort is as calculated as a YouTube pet video to warm viewers’ hearts. Gorgeous small animals will do that, especially when they’re learning to make a difference.

Indeed, as fond but straightforward as the documentary is, it’s Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose and Phil’s purpose that lifts Pick of the Litter. Re-teaming after co-helming 2013’s The Human Experiment, Hardy and Nachman step through the canines’ training regime. The four-legged friends tackle the tasks required to become a guide dog, while the puppy raisers showing them the ropes talk the audience through the process, explaining what does and doesn’t make a pooch successful in supporting someone who’s visually impaired. Aside from the educative nuts and bolts of guide dog instruction, the film also enters the lives of several people waiting for a furry helper to explore the mutts’ intended path.

Placed in disparate homes and facing unique experiences as part of their training, no one story is the same as these Labrador pups endeavour to progress towards their goal. Though not all of them will make the cut, watching their attempts elicits all of the sentiments that it’s supposed to. Perhaps more moving is the bond that Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose and Phil’s efforts speak to – striving not only to become working dogs, but to make lives better. When the 'awwws' stop, when it becomes clear just how much these cute critters mean to the volunteers tasked with preparing them, and when the change they inspire in people who need help is made intimately apparent, Pick of the Litter keenly celebrates the unspoken connection between man and man’s best friend.

And yet, a canine-focused version of thoughtful cat documentary Kedi, this isn’t. While happy, heartfelt emotions abound in tandem with adorable sights, Pick of the Litter still rarely strays from the bare minimum. If the feature was subject to the same rigorous testing as its pooches, its struggles – mainly its generic, overtly affable nature, and its standard array of appealing doggy close-ups – would fight to earn a passing grade. As such, the end result proves a show pup more than a family pet; groomed to charm and hit marks, rather than surprise and exceed bounds. Liking it is easy, but so is wanting more.

Rating: 3 stars ★★★
Pick of the Litter

Director: Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman
US, 2018, 81 mins
Release date: January 10
Distributor: Madman
Rated: G

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay