IFFBoston Review: ‘Well Groomed’ is a doggone good time

Well Groomed
Cattle Rat Productions

If you’re a Boston-based cinephile, this is undoubtedly one of the most exciting times of the year for you, as the Independent Film Festival Boston has returned with one of their strongest line-ups ever. Running from April 24 through May 1 at the Brattle, Somerville and Coolidge Corner Theatres, we’ll be running reviews of the festival’s features all week long. Check out our prior coverage here, and tickets and more information are available at the IFFBoston website.

Competitive creative dog grooming often gets a pretty bad rap from outsiders, and it’s sort of understandable why people get so upset about it. Dogs are non-consenting innocents (as one might know from the audience’s whimpers at a dog’s death in any major horror movie), and there’s something, well, odd, about painting and shaping a poodle’s coat to look like a dinosaur preserve or a chicken or any number of odd shapes and colors in order to impress a group of judges. But as Rebecca Stern’s incredibly entertaining new documentary Well Groomed points out, the dogs, as far as their owners can tell, really don’t mind, and their owners never force a shy pup into the painted limelight. It’s a portrait of a group of dog-loving women — who, indeed, have devoted their entire lives to the care of their four-legged friends as groomers and caretakers — who decided to channel an artistic impulse of their own into a very positive outlet, and who compete each year at the Hershey Groom Expo for top honors.

Naturally, the film’s structure features the Hershey competition as its climax, and it provides a very clean framework for Stern to craft portraits of the lives of these women. There are several keys to Stern’s success: the first is that she’s carefully chosen her excellent subjects, who are as almost as captivating and as wild as the dogs themselves, some of whom are at the very top of the game (such as one woman who created an entire cottage industry out of creative grooming’s various accouterments and accessories) and those whom are at the very bottom (a neophyte dog groomer who is so terrified of the presentation aspect of the dog-grooming show that she literally quakes as she sings a goofy little song in front of the assembled crowd). The standout is the hyperactive Adriane Pope, a witty Southerner who is slowly working her way up to the heights of the field, who runs what she calls a “funny farm,” full of various animals, and at least twenty different dogs at any given time.

But that’s not the only thing that makes Well Groomed such a beautifully-crafted experience. The cinematography is gorgeous, befitting the majesty of the creations on display, with the lush colors in the dogs’ coats captured brightly, and the precision of the grooming conveyed easily. The music is also phenomenal, as done by electronic musician Dan Deacon, who has contributed some of his very best work since breaking through to the indie mainstream with his album Spiderman of the Rings back in 2007. It all adds up to Well Groomed being this wonderfully pleasant experience, full of unexpected grace and pathos for those who want to learn more about this odd art form.