If you haven’t seen Well Groomed, then you haven’t seen a documentary about dog groomers. That’s right: a 90-minute film about a year in the life of competitive creative dog groomers.
What’s ‘creative dog grooming?’ Just wait….
First, a shout out to Hot Docs 2019 Festival in Toronto, Ontario where I saw the film opening night at tiff Lightbox, home to the Toronto International Film Festival. Hot Docs runs April,25 to May 5, 2019 and features documentary films on many, many topics from around the world.
I was only interested in pets, of course. So, Well Groomed it was.
The documentary, from writer and director Rebecca Stern, follows the docu-template: four characters with different but relatable personality traits all pursuing the same dream. Film them on the road, both in action and sitting in humble home surroundings speaking directly to the camera. Contextualize it all as a lead up to a competition creating tension, some drama, and a big win.
Well Groomed is oddly charming – if you’re obsessed with your dog, and I’ll assume you are. The premise is simple: We follow four women dog groomers (some human moms, all obsessive fur-moms) who also compete in standard dog grooming competitions – yes, there is such a thing. Add a laser focus on ‘creative dog grooming, and things get weird.
Creative dog grooming – usually using Standard Poodles with the fur for it – involves turning pups into elaborate colourful cartoonish works of walking, prancing, pooping ‘art.’ It’s more than spraying them crazy colours, which you’ve likely seen.
Creative Grooming involves elaborate themes, like Jurassic Bark, Mad Hatter, or Wildlife Safari, that are carved into the dogs’ fur. Faces, characters, and entire stories are cut, snipped, dyed, and airbrushed all over Fido’s physique.
You need a special dog willing to be the subject of the groomer’s vision and the intense resulting attention.
Not everyone likes the end result – and reactions aren’t candy-coated in the film, though do side with the down-to-earth women who insist nothing about this hurts the animal. These women live for this competitive art that take them away from work and family and on the road to annual competitions across the US including Las Vegas (loved the footage of SuperZoo having attended three times and counting), eventually leading to the big one in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Defeat is disheartening, though competitors surprisingly supportive. The final win is pure euphoria for the subject we follow the closest throughout the film.
Engagement in the journey is helped significantly by the fact Adriane Pope, a rising celebrity in the creative grooming world, is as chatty, personable, and quirky as southern belles get. She’s flanked by family members who indulge her passion and rarely complete a grammatically correct sentence. The ‘Mad Hatter Tea Party’ is her creation.
Are these creative dogs ‘humiliated,’ as some people claim? Not likely, because dogs don’t invest in appearance like we do. However, dogs do judge by smell, so you might wonder if the colouring affects their scent, and thus response from other pups. But impact on the dogs isn’t a central issue in Well Groomed.
The dogs, strangely, play a minor role as characters yet provide the necessary dose of blinking-eyed cuteness, colour and pageantry … especially adorn in over-the-top neon puffs. At times, it’s almost like uncomfortably watching little kids in beauty pageants. Ultimately, though, you know you’d ‘gram these dogs if you met them. (I’m guilty).
Well Groomed is Rebecca Stern’s first feature film, which premiered earlier this year in San Francisco. If you’re in Toronto, check it out (and others like Buddy about service dogs) at Toronto’s Hot Docs April 25, 26 and May 4, 2019.