SXSW review: Well Groomed is a doc as polished as its canine subjects


Rebecca Sterns’ documentary is a lovable and joyous examination of the world of competitive grooming and the human/dog subjects at the center.

When it comes to our dogs, nothing is too much, even if that means dying them a variety of different colors and grooming them to look like the Cheshire Cat. Or at least that’s not too much for the participants in a field known as “creative grooming.”

Creative grooming is the process of turning your dog into a work of art and the women at its center take it seriously. In Rebecca Stern’s directorial debut on the subject, appropriately titled Well Groomed, creative grooming is a way these women bond not just with their dogs, but the concept of art itself.

Well Groomed follows four women who live their lives around creative grooming. Their goal: to win first prize at the largest creative grooming competition in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Stern captures each woman at different points in their career, providing a spectrum of entry points into a landscape that can feel a taste weird.

Angela Kumpe is considered the creative groomer to beat who has created a brand off the concept, including a successful line of hair dyes. Her main rival/friend is Adriane Pope, a wealthy South Carolinian who can’t help but feel a bit envious at younger groomers being mentored when she wasn’t. Cat Opson is another successful groomer who loses her chance at Hershey due to life issues, and newcomer Nicole Beckman is an amateur groomer opening her own business.

Stern creates a documentary on par with the likes of Spelling Bee and The King of Kong, taking a topic that seems silly and insane and showing the humanity behind it. Criticism abounds when it comes to creative grooming, with advocates worrying about the health risks of hair dye on dogs to the conflicts of “choice” when it comes to animals.

A particular scene shows Cat Opson fielding questions on a morning show, only to have the anchors talk over her to remind her how terrible she is. Kumpe, who creates many of the hair crayons and dyes competitors use, shows the camera pages and pages of studies she’s read regarding hair dyes and dogs. It’s evident these women love their pets more than anything and, whether you agree with its presumed ridiculousness or not, don’t seek to inflict harm.

The women all see competitive grooming as a form of artistic expression, with their dogs being a living canvas. Regardless of your personal views on the ethics involved, the dogs are beautiful to look at. The camera takes its time showing the skill and artistry these women put into their dogs. Close-ups of clippers going through purple fur, hair being combed, presents a soothing atmosphere that has to be anything but for the women involved.

The finished products are breathtaking, particularly in the final scenes at Hershey. I can’t say I’ve needed to see a dog that looks like a rooster, but now I can and it’s amazing. These women are artists.

Now, it is difficult to avoid criticisms that creative grooming is strictly for white women. There aren’t any groomers of color interviewed and they seem rare in the competition scenes, aiding in the idea that this is a frivolous past time, but it certainly looks fun.

Stern also takes the time to highlight the dogs themselves. They aren’t full characters in comparison to their human subjects they are filled with personality, particularly Adriane’s dog, Gucci. One heartbreaking moment comes with a dog has to be put down and the camera respectfully stays outside, shooting the animal hospital with the tacit awareness that the owner will be coming out alone.

This isn’t a dour documentary and, in fact, this is really the only serious scene in the movie, but it does remind you of the mortality of animals, a subject always close to our hearts.

Well Groomed  leaves a smile on your face. It’s hard to criticize a movie about colorful dogs and their equally fun owners. Rebecca Stern develops a film that has empathy and heart, and a fair amount of competitive spirit. Watch this with your own dog, just leave your shears at home.

Watch the trailer for Well Groomed here:

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