Dog lovers, beware. There’s a new "Marley & Me" in town, and this one’s tailor-made to suck you in and spit you out of the theater with a saccharine, if not somewhat insipid, feeling by the time the credits roll.
"Pick of the Litter" follows five Labrador puppies from their entrance into this world as tiny balls of yelps through the first two years of life at the Guide Dogs for the Blind’s campus in San Rafael, Ca.
These aren’t just take-up-too-much-room-on-the-couch domesticated bedfellows. The “P” litter – comprising of Patriot, Primrose, Poppet, Potomac, and Phil – are on the arduous quest to become Guide Dogs for the Blind.
At barely eight weeks old, the young’uns are sent to separate “puppy raiser” families, everyday people who donate their time and homes to train their wards in basic commands, initial socialization, and obedience. Some of the pups take to it quickly; others struggle with classic puppy behavior like mouthiness and rowdiness. The ultimate prize at the end of the program is to be paired with a visually impaired person and serve as their eyes.
Once they’ve learned all they can from the puppy raisers, the litter is sent to “campus”, where the real training begins. They must learn to walk in tune with their human, avoiding interactions with others and evading even something as innocuous as a cigarette butt on the sidewalk. They must gain awareness of their surroundings and make in-the-moment judgment calls to keep their owners safe.
It is at this stage that their true colors shine, and the tough calls are made. Some will become “breeders” (like the Lab’s mom) to produce the next generation of competitors. Others will be “career changed”, a polite way of saying they flunked the program and are reassigned to civilian life. Only the best will make it all the way.
The relationship between the dogs and humans, coupled with the stories of the blind individuals we meet who are eagerly awaiting their dog make this film an sweet, endearing ride. Coming from someone who hasn’t properly cried in a movie since Sobfest 2004 (I’m looking at you, "Finding Neverland"), Pick strikes at the bull’s-eye of every dog owner’s soft spot. Some scenes even managed to elicit a small tear or two from this wary crocodile.
It is particularly hard to watch the handlers pass off the dogs they’ve been training for months on end. The attachment and love is discernibly real, and it’s this honest sentimentality that makes the film universally relatable.
You may be watching five dogs you’ve never met, but in their faces all you see is your own. And anything even remotely correlated to my Daisy is automatic waterworks.
What struck me was just how rigorous the vetting process is. These puppies are traded through multiple handlers who lovingly but strictly prod them into shape. The final tests they must pass are intensive and involve incredibly difficult-to-master commands. Having no prior knowledge of the journey these dogs undergo, I found myself slightly more knowledgeable leaving the theater than when I came in.
The film is as cute and likeable as it is quick, running just over 80 minutes. What it lacks in complex plot development it makes up for in earnest passion for its subject. There is a simplicity here that documentarians Dana Nachman and Don Hardy use to their advantage, warming up then buttering the audience with precisely what we expect to find: a heart-warming relationship that runs deeper than dog and master.
Oh, and doggy wiggles. So many doggy wiggles.
You may watch Unlikely Animal Friends or any of the millions of animal videos on Instagram for the same reason you’d seek out "Pick of the Litter". Because the world is in an especially confusing flux of awful, and there is something beautiful in the uncomplicated, slightly informative and demurely delightful documentary about our favorite four-legged friends.
You can catch "Pick of the Litter" June 4, 2018 at AMC Pacific Place as part of the Seattle International Film Festival.