Short of “Toddlers in Bunny Onesies: The Movie,” it’s hard to think of a film concept more guaranteed to elicit the “Awwwww…” factor than that demonstrated by “Pick of the Litter.” Dana Nachman and Don Hardy’s fourth documentary feature as co-directors follows five Labrador puppies as they undergo the lengthy training process to become guide dogs for the blind — a challenge that most four-legged aspirants will ultimately fail. Though not particularly inspired in packaging or storytelling, this solidly crafted item is guaranteed to appeal to mutt-lovers, as attested to by the several festival audience awards it’s already accumulated since its Slamdance premiere in January. Sundance Selects plans an Aug. 31 release.
After a short prologue in which visually impaired persons recall how guide dogs saved their lives — from speeding cars, falling down staircases, even the 78th floor of a World Trade Center tower on 9/11 — we’re introduced to our protagonists. The five black-and-tan Labs dubbed Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and Phil are born on the campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind’s San Rafael, Calif., campus, and they’ve scarcely a day old before their training begins. Eight weeks later, each are farmed out to “puppy raiser” families and individuals who’ll foster them through up to 16 months of socialization and other preliminary prep for the job at hand.
Only a few such dogs end up assigned to the blind; there are a lot of challenging hoops to jump through en route. Patriot proves mouthy and unruly with his teenage foster owner from the get-go. Turned over to an Iraq vet with more experience — and for whom these canine caretaking gigs are a helpful distraction from his PTSD — the dog performs better. Likewise, Phil is transferred from one couple to another, the latter practiced “fixers” for problem dogs. Some volunteers complain that such administrative transfers are too abrupt and impersonal, heightening the painful emotions of parting with an animal.
But GDB is rigorous about pursuing whatever might maximize a pup’s chances, even if the majority of canines nonetheless end up as HQ-dwelling “breeders” (like the Labs’ mom) or otherwise “career changed” — whether handed over to different nonprofits or adopted as plain old domestic pets. After they’re done being fostered, the dogs head back to the campus for 10 weeks’ “formal guide work” with an assigned staffer who often wears a blindfold to test the dogs’ reactions to obstacles, traffic peril and verbal commands. Even at this late stage, they can still flunk out.
The successful graduates are matched with the lucky few among some 1,100 applicants per year, in this case including a partially sighted career woman now on her fourth such dog, and a Oregon man who’s gotten by without one so far. He’s thrilled by the major life changes a guide dog will bring; it’s generally agreed that using a cane is far more limiting.
“Pick” is brisk and pleasant, but not terribly involving or memorable. Human interest is limited by the number of hands most of these hounds pass through, and perhaps due to the rather strict demands of their training, the dogs themselves don’t get to express a lot of personality. Some insight into GDB’s history (it was founded in 1942 to aid blinded soldiers back from WWII) would have been interesting while also broadening a narrow focus that’s inevitably appealing but provides few insights or surprises. Do problems ever arise after a blind person gets their dog? Such knottier questions go unaddressed here.
The packaging is bright, straightforward and a little pedestrian, including the slightly cutesy tenor struck by Helen Jane Long’s original score.