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With: n/a
Written by: Dana Nachman
Directed by: Dana Nachman, Don Hardy Jr.
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 81
Date: 09/07/2018

Pick of the Litter (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

A Doggie Dog World

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Certain types of movies are critic-proof. If a critic found fault in, say, a documentary about the evils of the Holocaust or slavery, that critic runs the risk of being viewed as supporting those things.

Conversely, not loving the puppies that are selflessly training to become Guide Dogs for the Blind in the new documentary Pick of the Litter — which screened last April as part of the SF Film Festival — could be construed as heartlessness.

Fortunately, while not particularly deep, Pick of the Litter is a wonderful movie, and could actually be referred to as the Hoop Dreams of dog documentaries.

Opening Friday at the Opera Plaza Cinema, Pick of the Litter begins with an "aww" moment as five new pups are born, destined to enter the San Rafael-based training program to become Guide Dogs.

Less than half of dogs that enter the program actually pass the rigorous training. They must be so well-trained that they will actually be able to disobey if a command could lead their human into danger.

Our new candidates are in the "P" group. Their names are Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose, and Phil. They grow from tiny little balls of fur to mid-size doggies and are then given to "raisers."

The raisers take the dogs home and begin to teach them. One raiser is given the instruction that she must go to bed at ten and sleep on the nearby couch so that the doggie will feel comfortable.

The raisers understand that, whether or not their dog passes or fails (which is called "career change" in this community), the dogs will be going away at some point. One raiser likens the experience to sending a child off to college.

Some of the raiser storylines, especially ones involving a teen boy and an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD, are quite moving in their own ways.

Raiser families seem to be ranked by how many dogs they've hosted, and how many of those dogs have passed and become Guide Dogs. The more experienced families are called in to take over dogs that fail ("career change") early.

Finally, as our P-dogs are slowly eliminated — one is selected to become a breeder dog, which is like graduating with a "B" average — it comes down to two of them taking their final tests.

These tests are often exciting as the dog leads a blindfolded trainer down real sidewalks, or down residential areas without sidewalks, avoiding cars, ignoring other dogs, going around obstacles, and getting out of the way of danger.

Scenes of sight-impaired folks meeting their new dogs for the first time will also cause many lumps in throats.

The movie asserts that these people are often on long waiting lists for dogs, and we learn that walking with canes is sometimes problematic; when the cane hits a crack in the pavement, it can bounce up and smack its owner in the stomach. Guide Dogs offer not only lack of midsection bruises, but also a much greater range of freedom.

Pick of the Litter, which was directed by Bay Area residents Dana Nachman and Don Hardy (both worked on the lovable Batkid Begins), runs a scant 80 minutes and is largely a celebration of this noble (and adorable) cause; it finds no criticisms or dark sides to speak of.

It also focuses more on fuzzy subjects than on humans, which results in a more superficial feeling, but which also avoids the potential pitfall of becoming like a nasty elimination-driven reality TV show.

Indeed, Pick of the Litter remains good-natured throughout (it's quite kid-friendly). Mainly it offers a better appreciation for those special, heroic dogs that are easy to love and impossible to hate.

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