Documentaries can can introduce us to cultures and parts of the world we would never have even dreamed of learning about. They can zero in on a subject and shed new light on a person, place, thing or event and give insight to an audience that would otherwise have been oblivious. Or they can be used as narrative activist journalism, exposing wrongdoing and evil in a cinematic format.
Also, they can be an excuse to watch cute puppies grow up into adorable (and most importantly, good) dogs.
Pick of the Litter is a pretty straightforward documentary. It follows five newborn Labrador Retriever puppies through the training process to become seeing-eye dogs. From their first days as pups learning how the world works to their final assignment to a person suffering from vision impairment. Seeing-eye training is the most difficult field for a dog to be accepted in, as one mistake can have life or death consequences. Many times not a single animal from a litter even makes it into circulation as a guide.
The litter we follow are named Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet, and Phil — each litter is given a letter of the alphabet as a naming convention. We follow along as each one is teamed up with various trainers and fosters and we’re there every step of the way as they are tested time and time again on their journey. We witness the heartache that is inherent in this process: trainers and fosters spend months raising these dogs, yet they can’t get too attached as the dogs will, inevitably, be moved on.
Which is where the heart of the film really lies. If you aren’t a dog person, this film is almost certainly not for you. The connection that the families and individuals form with their furry friends is the emotional core that the film relies on. The wrinkly faces, waggly tails, chubby rolls… Lab puppies start off as the absolute cutest thing on the planet, and the film’s director Dana Nachman captures this with the utmost accuracy. While the film does depict the struggles of raising — and giving back — these canine companions, the overwhelming emphasis is on the dogs themselves and the purity of their hearts. The film captures the dogs’ ups and downs, but they’re constantly working their hardest to make their owners and trainers happy, even if they don’t truly understand what they are doing or why they’re doing it.
The film itself is enjoyably put together, as the 20 month training program gives structure to the documentary and keeps it from going off the rails as some tend to do. Following five separate animals as they work to become guides also helps balance the scope, preventing it from becoming too broad or too narrow. Rather, we get a solid look both at the specifics of these individual animals’ and people’s training regimens, as well as a eagle eyed view of the program itself. These are areas documentaries often struggle with, but Nachman crafts an immensely enjoyable experience with this structure. At just 81 minutes, Pick of the Litter never wears out its welcome.
Is Pick of the Litter an all time great documentary? Probably not. The film doesn’t really have a whole lot to say thematically, and it primarily exists as a work of human interest journalism. But man, it’s hard to not enjoy it in the moment. Dogs are Man’s best friend for a reason, and this movie gives these — dare I say it — heroes visibility that they might otherwise not have gotten. There’s not a whole lot of meat on Pick of the Litter’s bones, but it you’ll almost certainly walk out with a smile on your face… and a newfound desire to go adopt a puppy.