Review: ‘Well Groomed’

Hot Docs 2019

4 mins read

Well Groomed
(USA, 87 min.)
Dir. Rebecca Stern
Programme: Artscapes (International Premiere)

Well Groomed is a quirky, fluffy film about what Frank Zappa lyrically referred to as “modified dogs”, bringing attention to the world of creative grooming and the characters at the heart of the competition.
Unlike Christopher Guest’s magnificent mockumentary Best in Show that playful and ironically toyed with the inherent ridiculousness of dog shows, Stern’s documentary gives audiences a sympathetic look as this subset that superficially appears even more bonkers than the prancing pure-breads on the main stage.

With “creative grooming,” the participants coat their dogs in gaudy hues, glue-on elements and cut and shave the fur into various shapes, from Johnny Depp’s visage to a toothy T-Rex. The goal is to use the dog as a living canvas, a sculpture with wagging tail and panting tongue that’s reshaped to appear to be a ram, a mermaid or an orca.

We meet a number of groomers that regularly compete against each other, travelling along with their canine partners to event after event. Hershey is the big competition that all are striving to win, with thousands of dollars on the line and the hopes of being crowned the best creative groomer in the world.

We find small business owners trying to balance their work and creative lives, looking to this more flamboyant presentation as a way out of the more quotidian process of clipping nails, washing coats and shaping fur. Others come from significantly more means, their partners supportive as these women travel the highways in search of more fame and glory.

Stern’s film is sculpted into a celebratory sports film, where the participants all seem to revel in the shared event despite their competitive situation. Given the stakes both reputation-ally and financially, the group is presented as entirely convivial, free from any backbiting at least on screen. It does make for a dearth of drama, with nary a foil to be found save for the tin strips used during the colouring process.

Well Groomed treats viewers to a perfectly affable look at a bunch of dogs in strange colours and the people that make them look that way. The bubble is broken slightly during a UK television broadcast where one of the hosts excoriates one of the groomers, claiming the dog looks “ridiculous” and chastising the exploration of the animal that can’t give consent for such fashion crimes. Counter arguments are quickly presented, including from vets claiming that the happiness of the dogs is evident, a further indication of their desire to please.

A boon for any dog lover or someone just wanting to learn about this subculture, Well Groomed is a slight yet generally satisfying look into this odd topic. Larger questions about the exploitation of the animals, the obsessions of the individuals for their pets at the expense of people, etc. are left aside for a gentle film about an intense but agreeable competition.

Well Groomed may not have much in the way of bite, but as a fluffy bit of colourful fun it does what it sets out to do reasonably well. While its feature-length running time does feel a bit bloated as the points are repeated several times, it remains a highly accessible, audience friendly look at a bunch of pups with punk rock colour jobs standing tall beside their owners, parading the results of competitive grooming for the world to see.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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