'Well Groomed': Film Review | SXSW 2019

An amusing trifle.

A documentary follows contestants and their colorful dyed-and-sculpted dogs in the world of competitive creative grooming.

You haven’t seen a show dog until you’ve seen a poodle whose coat has been dyed and shaped so the animal resembles a four-legged version of an Alice in Wonderland theme park. On one flank there is Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, on the other the March Hare, both rising in sculpted hair. Well Groomed follows four women in the world of competitive creative grooming, in which dogs become blank slates for elaborate designs like that one. Snipped and dyed, their kaleidoscopic pets often look like giant stuffed animals. One dog’s tail becomes a turkey’s head. Another dog’s fur is shaped into spiky green triangles rising from its back, inspired by Jurassic Park.   

There is nothing radical or especially distinctive about the style of this mildly entertaining documentary, which flows along easily but leaves plenty of unanswered questions along the way. First-time filmmaker Rebecca Stern follows the women through a year of competitions leading up to the country’s biggest contest, in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Reality-show-style, they talk directly to the camera in some scenes. In others, the camera stands back unobtrusively as they style their dogs and go about their daily routines.

Despite that yearlong structure, the documentary is less about the contests than the women and their reasons for spending time and money as creative groomers. They see the activity as fun but are also fiercely competitive and passionate about it.

Three of the women are former prize-winners, and one is an up-and-comer. All are busy with their own regular dog-grooming businesses and families. Adriane Pope, of the Mad Hatter design, is lively and chatty onscreen, saying that creative grooming is an escape from her everyday obligations. She, her husband and their teenage daughter live in South Carolina with a menagerie of pets, even though her daughter mentions in a brief interview that she is allergic to dogs. Another doc might have explored that a bit, but Stern mostly stays within her main characters’ upbeat points of view. That approach adds intimacy, but severely limits the pic’s range.   

Angela Kumpe, considered the woman to beat in the field (and most of the competitors are women), has a no-nonsense manner. She owns a supply business on the side, selling doggie hair colors and accessories.

Nicole Beckman, younger and still on the rise, calls creative grooming "an artistic outlet." She becomes the most sympathetic character because she is the least polished onscreen. Diffident and realistic about her slim chance of competing with champions like Adriane and Angela, she is struggling to start her grooming company, and gains confidence from creative competitions on the side.

In one compact episode, composed mostly of talk-show clips, the film quickly addresses controversies about the grooming practice. Cat Opson, from California, appears remotely on a program from London, sitting next to a dog with a bright orange mane. An interviewer berates her for coloring and styling her pet, charging, "It’s humiliating to the dog." Cat replies calmly, echoing the thoughts of the other groomers, that not every dog has the temperament to be styled that way, and that an owner knows the difference. "They cooperate with you or not," she says. In a scene shot for the film, Angela pulls out files of research to prove that the dyes she sells are non-toxic. There is no way for a movie audience to judge the dogs’ happiness, but they look compliant and well cared for.

It’s easy to be entertained by the spectacle of all those Halloween-ready dogs, but the doc flags as the surprise wears off and the women get closer to the big contest. The competitions seem to follow the model of a Top Chef or Project Runway challenge, with contestants grooming in real time, hearing lines like, "One minute to scissors down." But those scenes are snippets and the rules are not clear. The film never explains, for example, what state of grooming the dog can be in before the clock starts. And when the women finally arrive at the big show in Hershey, it’s a bit of a shock to see that they dress in wacky costumes that match their dogs’ themes, and put on little shows. Nicole’s dog now looks like a chicken, and her hand trembles as she sings a song while dressed as a chicken herself.  

Those holes in the narrative are frustrating, but then Stern is not intent on creating a comprehensive introduction to the subject. With its benign view of the world it captures, Well Groomed asks us to laugh along with the cheerful women on camera. Its non-intrusive approach leaves the door open, just a crack, for anyone ready to laugh at people who turn their dogs into turkeys and chickens.

Production companies: Cattle Rat Productions, Spacestation
Cast: Adriane Pope, Angela Kumpe, Cat Opson, Nicole Beckman
Director-screenwriter: Rebecca Stern
Producers: Rebecca Stern, Justin Levy, Matthew C. Mills
Director of photography: Alexander W. Lewis
Editor: Katharina Stroh
Music: Dan Deacon
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: Annie Roney

88 minutes