As documentary pitches go, a study of service dogs and their humans is as critic-proof, in its own way, as a Marvel spectacular: It will have a particular audience at “hello” (or perhaps that should be “heel”) regardless of execution. Which is to say that veteran Dutch docmaker Heddy Honigmann’s “Buddy” doesn’t need to be as delicate and intelligent as it is to work, but its thoughtful, unsentimental gaze makes an already guaranteed awww-fest into something more substantially affecting. Examining a diverse half-dozen of dog-person pairs at close but not overly invasive quarters, the film captures the remarkable breadth and depth of assistance these canine aides offer their variously disabled, trauma-afflicted or special-needs owners. An unsurprising hit with audiences on the docfest circuit, “Buddy” is bound for a long life in ancillary.
A humane, straightforward stylist who began in narrative cinema before making a non-fiction name for herself in the 1990s, Honigmann brings no structural tricks or formal fireworks to this TV-friendly exercise. Her great gift is as an observer and interviewer, and “Buddy” benefits from the evident, carefully won comfort that her potentially vulnerable subjects feel on camera, as they speak candidly of both their physical dependency on, and emotional attachment to, their furry partners — as well as the difficulties of moving on when, cruelly, these stalwart support animals weaken and die. Even as a tear-jerker, however, “Buddy” remains quietly composed, give or take the wistful piano motifs of Florencia Di Concilio’s score.
Working at a gentle pace that allows for viewers to pick up small, telling domestic details, Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning introduce their subjects gradually, eventually alternating their stories in complementary ways. There may initially appear to be little in common between Zeb, a mostly exuberant autistic pre-teen devoted to his equally energetic labradoodle Utah, and Trevor, an imposing Afghanistan war veteran whose noble poodle Mister helps to alleviate the effects of his PTSD — though we come to see how these protective pooches work similarly to draw their human wards out of their own heads, deflecting anger and panic in the process. Zeb even admits to camera that Utah handles his moods better than his own loving but fretful mother.
Other dogs provide more tangible practical assistance to their physically incapacitated owners. Bouncy, alert Kaiko makes it possible for middle-aged, wheelchair-bound Erna to live independently, and some of the film’s most remarkable footage shows the dog’s extraordinary ability to anticipate and intuit her owner’s actions and needs, whether opening and closing kitchen drawers or, via a most ingenious pulley system, helping to turn her over in bed and tuck her in again. Blind octogenerian Edith has always lived alone — and even managed to indulge her passion for horse-riding — thanks to a long line of treasured support dogs, of which the magnificent Alsatian cross Makker is the latest. (She keeps portraits of them all on the walls, Edith wryly admits, even if she can’t see them.)
Unlike last year’s similarly themed doc “Pick of the Litter” — also an audience favorite at last year’s Hot Docs fest — “Buddy” is not concerned with the ins and outs of the service-dog industry. Details of how the mutts are trained, selected, assigned and, unhappily, replaced are barely alluded to, as Honigmann prefers to fashion her film as an close-up relationship study. Examining the intimate partnership between guide and guided, and noting the contrasting dynamics between different human-dog couples along the way, it’s a film that treats both parties with equal interest: Adri Schrover’s camera is as attentive to the dogs’ restless expressions of darting worry or doting devotion as it is to their humans’ talking heads. The old maxim that dogs and their owners wind up resembling each other is partly true here: By the end of this tender, generous film, the two species don’t seem all that separate.