For those of us who are dog lovers, along with all the joys are the stringent conversations one has about where, exactly, your dog came from. Was it a rescue? Did you get it from a breeder — and, if so, was the breeder a reputable one? Or did you find your dog not at a shelter but — gulp! — at a pet store? In the moral spectrum of canine conversation, rescue dogs occupy the high ground, because they’re viewed as the caring quintessence of doggie love. Other ways of finding a dog call up fears that the pooches have come from “puppy mills”: breeders who churn out dogs at inhumane rates and in inhumane conditions. The whole question of how dogs are conceived, raised, and distributed is an urgent and often heartbreaking one, and “The Dog Lover,” the first investigative drama I’ve seen that dives deep into the issue (it’s based on a true story), gets a lot right. It’s a prosaic piece of muckraking, shot in a functional flat visual style, but it grazes a nerve.
It starts with an ethical fakeout. Sara (Allison Paige), a volunteer activist, works for the United Animal Protection Agency, a (fictional) organization that has dedicated itself to wiping out dog breeders. According to the UAPA platform, the breeders exist on a slippery slope of diminished animal rights; too many of them are glorified puppy mills. The organization has put its muscle behind Proposition 12, a bill that would outlaw dog breeders, because it wants to do nothing less than re-orient the entire culture toward rescue dogs. When Sara, posing as a veterinary student, goes undercover as an intern to record and reveal the practices at Holloway Farms, a breeder located on several pristine country acres, her father, trying to steer her toward a middle ground, warns, “These people may be responsible breeders.” She replies: “There’s no such thing! Every time somebody buys a designer puppy instead of adopting from a shelter, a homeless animal loses its chance of finding a home, and then it’s euthanized.” There are more than a few people who would agree, and watching that scene I thought “The Dog Lover” might turn into a reductive piece of rescue-dog propaganda.
Fortunately, it does not. At Holloway Farms, where Sara signs on to work and live for several weeks, she spies a few things that raise her eyebrows, like an ominous locked shed that makes the audience, at first, think it’s something out of “The Texas Dog Breed Massacre.” The family that owns and operates the place is led by Daniel Holloway (James Remar), a gruff Christian conservative who looks at Sara with moody skepticism. He tells her that she’s there to be a dog’s master, not its friend, and for a while that’s kind of the way he treats her. Yet it’s hard not to notice that he shows his dogs a great deal of devotion and respect.
How does a breeder like this one actually operate? A lot of us have never seen these places before, and “The Dog Lover” doesn’t sentimentalize them — the dogs spend a great deal of time penned up in their kennels, and they can’t miss a “breeding cycle” or it will cost money. But we also learn about all the work that goes into creating a clean, healthy, stress-free environment for them. When Sara finally sneaks into that shed, it turns out to contain several dogs with distemper who have been quarantined (which is the right thing to do). By contrast, she accidentally wanders over to the puppy mill run by the gun-toting rednecks next door, and it’s a sad horror show, with angry, disease-riddled dogs penned in a cage.
It starts to dawn on Sara that the place she’s been infiltrating, capturing snatches of it on her hidden video recorder, is actually a good place for dogs. Maybe not a perfect place, but then what is? Letting the audience know just how they should feel about it are the scrupulous, down-home performances of James Remar and Lea Thompson as Dan and Liz Holloway. It’s nice to see these two veterans of the ’80s together, and both are quietly moving — Remar, who was always a dark customer, now concealing a hard-won decency within his saturnine stare, and Thompson playing Liz as a forthright, practical woman who looks like a pushover until somebody accuses her of not doing the right thing. Sara, in getting to know these two, realizes that she’s been guilty of throwing out the doggie with the bathwater. She finds a middle ground. And Allison Paige, who starts off a little too perky, winds up convincing us that Sara’s fervor is the real thing.
But first the film turns into a courtroom battle, as the UAPA, using (and manipulating) evidence from Sara’s videos, attempts to shut down Holloway Farms. The director, Alex Ranarivelo, doesn’t stage this legal drama with any special flair, yet there’s a cunning strategy built into the film’s design: What’s on trial is the institution of dog breeding itself, which is revealed to be no more — or less — humane than the people who, in each case, are operating it. (What are needed, if anything, aren’t laws to wipe out dog breeders so much as more laws to regulate them.) Rescue-dog purists may not approve of the line “The Dog Lover” takes, yet to this dog lover it comes off as compassionate and realistic: a plea for a place where good care can become common sense.