A good documentary doesn’t have to teach you something, necessarily, but it should provoke some thought. It doesn’t have to make you feel something, but it helps. And if you go in thinking you know something about the subject and come out going, “whoa — there was a lot more to that than I thought,” then it’s not a good documentary; it’s a great one. Dana Nachman and Don Hardy’s latest film, Pick of the Litter, is a great documentary.
Sure, Cinequest and Fanboy Planet both used the image of a small boy going in to kiss his Labrador, but that’s not the kind of movie this is. It’s certainly about “Man’s Best Friend,” but within minutes Nachman and Hardy reveal that dogs can be better friends than we know, specifically focusing on the rigorous training it takes to turn a puppy into a Guide Dog for the Blind. First thing I’d never thought of — a guide dog has to be able to make the decision to deliberately disobey their human, if the human is asking to be taken into danger without knowing it.
Also, a Guide Dog safely navigated its owner down 78 flights of stairs in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Seriously, I hope that dog got a medal, or at least the best kibble in the world for the rest of their life.
Those facts set the stage for Nachman and Hardy to follow a litter of five pups through the training — Patriot, Potomac, Phil, Primrose, and Poppet. It might be an exaggeration to say these dogs have a destiny, because the 14-16 months of training that they must undergo can clash with natural temperament. At any point, they could be “career changed.” Only the best of the best become Guide Dogs, with anxious potential owners waiting years to be matched.
It’s rigorous. It’s heart-breaking as we see a dog who is maybe too easily distracted. And on the flip side, we see humans that are doing their best to get by without a dog, but whose lives would so obviously open up if/when they get one.
And then there are the trainers, volunteers who can’t help but get emotionally involved and yet know that no matter what, these dogs are not really theirs. Setting all this up, the film has a great dramatic arc, which Nachman and Hardy try to keep light when possible. We do love dogs, after all. But Pick of the Litter never loses track of how important the end result will be.
Like their previous documentary, Batkid Begins, Pick of the Litter doesn’t just show us that there are people out there who are doing good. It reminds us that they’re real, not fictional. The surprise is that the best of the best of us… just may be dogs.
Hammer Theatre SJ Fri, Mar 9 7:30 PM