Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, Jr. are teaming up once again to bring viewers a meaningfully beautiful and emotional story with the 2018 Slamdance opening night film, “Pick of the Litter.” The pair are also responsible for this critic’s favorite documentaries of year’s past such as “Batkid Begins” and “The Human Experiment.” Now, they take us on a journey in the lives of 5 labrador retriever puppies who were bred with the intention of becoming a guide dog for the blind. We join these puppies from the moment of birth to their final destination, but only the best of the best can make it as a guide dog. Will any of these 5 puppies, Phil, Primrose, Patriot, Poppet , or Potomac, make the cut?
“Pick of the Litter” is a thrillingly heartfelt story as we get to know the puppies, the loving people who train them in their homes for a short period of time, and two visually impaired people who are hopeful of receiving one of these dogs to help them lead more independent lives. Tears of joy and tears of sorrow are a constant in this film, just like “Batkid Begins” proving that this Dynamic Duo has done it again.
We meet the “P” litter as they are literally being born. 3 black labs and 2 yellow. Your heart immediately melts even though at this stage they look more like fat gerbils than pudgy little puppies. We know from the very beginning that these dogs were bred for one purpose…to lead the blind. The process is a long and tricky one as we see them grow into those adorable fluffy fur balls filled with energy and they begin their training by being placed in a home. This, as we will see, is a tough aspect of the process as the temporary owners get quite attached to their new buddy. And then we find ourselves predicting which one we think has all the right stuff to make it as a guide dog, rooting for each of them, and being surprised as their personalities develop and they mature.
As the viewer, we get to know these little guys and gals, their home-trainers, and the hopeful future owners needing assistance. With candid and open interviews with all involved, we are able to walk in each of their shoes, understanding what it takes to love, raise, and then let go of these smart and loving animals. I fell in love with Phil when he was 5-weeks old. I can’t imagine raising him and then letting him go, but it is for the greater good—a blind person gaining independence.
The film captures the process of raising and training a guide dog with such exquisite skill that we feel we are a part of the journey. The camera work brings you down to the dogs’ level and the storyline brings you to the humanity of it. By the end of the film, it’s like watching a race, seeing which dogs will cross the finish and become the winner of helping a disabled adult. Those that don’t make it become “career changed,” but that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps they will become a breeder dog, or maybe just a great companion for someone. But in your heart, you want each of these dogs to go on and fulfill their destiny, but you know that not all of them have the potential to do this. This is where your tears begin to stream, most of which are happy tears.
Nachman and Hardy tell a beautiful, educational, and heartfelt story that lifts you up, reminding you of the importance of helping one another and how dogs can be an integral part of our lives.
The film opens tonight, Friday, Jan. 19 at 7 pm at the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City. For more information about tickets, go to Slamdance.com.