Film Review: Pick of the Litter

Deeply affecting, dramatically involving doc following a Labrador litter on their journey to become guide dogs for the blind is a much-needed treat for all well-behaved humans living in a time of such unleashed bad behavior.
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Sundance Selects’ Pick of the Litter is a beautifully crafted film that, pandering to no one, delivers the true emotional wallop of a tale involving a California litter of five Lab pups being trained to help the blind. That only 300 out of 800 dogs a year become “picks” by making it to guide dog status suggests how rigorous the training and oversight are. But it’s the caring, loving and dedication from all parties concerned—whether two- or four-legged—that make the big impact.

Made in close association with the Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) organization and shot, it appears, mainly in California, the doc follows the pups (three boys and two girls) from birth. They then go on to various stages of training, testing and placements with temporary home trainers in the hope that a good number will become “picks” or “graduates” who win final placements with blind owners they will serve.

Besides the vets and other GDB staffers, people critical to this program include puppy “raisers” who take the dogs to live only temporarily in their homes, where the families expose the pups to the world before they are then handed over to go through more testing and training.

The dogs are scrutinized for early telling signs, good and bad. These include signals they are outgoing, shy, prone to “misbehaving,” obey easily, have unchanneled energy, etc. Training and testing will take the dogs to places like airports, trafficked streets or those without sidewalks or train platforms, all places where it’s critical they learn to behave and obey on behalf of those who will be their sight-challenged owners.

Scenes with the pups’ temporary raisers are wonderful, as these are generous, dog-loving people who understand their value in the process, all the while knowing it will be so hard to let go of the dogs they grow fond of.

Additional players in this lovely drama are the vets and training staffers who closely monitor the dogs and their raisers and, especially, the two sight-impaired individuals who have long been awaiting their dogs. Their initial meetings with their new four-legged helpers are among the doc’s most powerful.

The cross-cutting between humans and the canine stars heightens the tension of which pups will make the cut and which will be returned to their original raisers so happy to have them back—or which will be “career-changed” to become breeders or workers with others in need such as people with diabetes.

Pick of the Litter is in the sub-genre of docs and shows that follow kids as spelling-bee, tech or cooking whizzes competing for glory. Now come youngsters on four legs in a far more benevolent but just as engaging competition. Best of all here is that even the apparent canine losers in the competitive process (which is really a kind of polite sorority or fraternity rush) come out winners.

The filmmaking team of director/writer/producer Dana Nachman and director/producer/cinematographer/editor Don Hardy assured the superb craftsmanship here. And doc sales/distribution advisory veterans and executive producers Josh and Dan Braun, through their Submarine Entertainment, have already proven they know a good nonfiction story when they encounter it.

Devoid of any corniness, sentimentality or condescension, Pick of the Litter is a must for dog lovers, but it will also serve all those needing reminders of how kind, decent and giving humans can be and the role dogs play in our lives.