New from A Reel of One’s Own by Andrea Thompson: SXSW 2019 Review: Well Groomed

By Andrea Thompson

Subcultures are all the rage nowadays, as are a number of documentaries that have cropped up about them. Rest easy though, “Well Groomed” goes for a lighter vibe. It probably wasn’t too difficult for director Rebecca Stern to take that route though, seeing as this doc is all about the world of competitive dog grooming.

After all, you can get away with disliking cats, or even a particular dog or two. But people who harbor a genuine dislike for dogs in general seem to be few and far between, and I myself have no desire to meet them. The people in “Well Groomed” who devote their time, energy, and money to the sport are also a charming bunch. Good thing, because sometimes their chosen pastime (or more accurately, obsession) needs to be defended.

There’s the money for one. One groomer mentions how she spent a mind-boggling $25,000 in one year, with a casualness that suggests she’s probably not unusual. “You have to love it to do it,” groomer Adriane Pope says at one point. “It has to be in your blood.” So why do all these women – and this is a world very much dominated by women – spent all their time, energy, and money on this? Stern manages to give us an idea as she follows a few of them as they prepare to compete at Hershey, the world’s largest dog grooming show.

Some of the answers lie not just in how the dogs are on display, but their owners. While the dogs are constantly styled in colorfully outrageous ways, the women also somewhat expected to at various competitions, and often gleefully participate. When owners had to choose a theme to style their dog after, choices ranged from “Alice in Wonderland” to a “Jurassic Bark” theme, with the stylists often dressing up in costumes themselves. One even had her daughter participate in her “Alice” theme, with her and a friend dressing up as Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

For such a competitive world, the women seem highly supportive of each other, even as they openly admit how much they want to win. They also have to defend dog grooming against charges that it’s unsafe, exploitative, or harmful to the dogs. Hell, apparently in some states it’s apparently even illegal. One groomer even mentions that she gets death threats. Their response is that the dogs like the shows, and the attention. As one groomer points out, the dog has to stand there while they’re styled, and at the contests themselves. If they didn’t like it or weren’t suited to it, it would be pretty obvious.

Director Rebecca Stern has been a producer of other documentaries such as “Tre Maison Dasan” and “Netizens” that delved into far more serious topics. “Well Groomed” may be lighter fare, but unlike other docs that explored into similar worlds, Stern’s directorial debut skips the condescension for a genuinely engaging experience that feels equal parts adorable, emotional, and even triumphant. Sometimes you just want a nice documentary that’s all about the unusual path some people have taken to express themselves creatively.

Grade: A-

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