Sunshine and rainbow dogs: FilmScene hosts a new doc showcasing creative dog grooming

Women’s March Vino Vérité: Well Groomed

FilmScene — Sunday, March 17 at 7 p.m.

Creative dog groomer Adrian Pope poses with her pets in an Alice in Wonderland themed scene. — still from ‘Well Groomed’

When we think of image-obsessed dog owners, three personalities may come to mind: a bow-tied handler trimming the haunch hair of his Westminster Dog Show entry; a Paris Hilton-type decorating her purse pup in pink bows and a rhinestone collar; and an overzealous suburban dog parent who stuffs their “fur baby” into a new PetSmart dog costume every Halloween. Often, it’s a person to look down on, someone willing to “torture” their dog for the sake of creating a champion, the perfect accessory or Instagram cred.

But canine cosmetology isn’t always shallow or abusive. A new documentary combats stereotypes associated with exhibitionist dog owners while focusing on, arguably, their epitome: competitive creative dog groomers. FilmScene will screen Well Groomed on Sunday as part of their Vino Vérité series, co-presented by Bread Garden Market and Little Village. Director Rebecca Stern will join the audience for a discussion of the film, which is fresh off its premiere at the 2019 SXSW festival.

Californian groomer Cat Opson dyes a contented dog in ‘Well Groomed.’ — film still

Well Groomed is Stern’s debut feature, and it’s a refreshingly straightforward, subtly feminist story — by design.

Well Groomed is a moment to pause and enjoy seeing something you’ve likely never seen before — dog art — and a time to become best friends with the women pushing this activity forward,” Stern said in an interview ahead of SXSW. “It is an escape from headline news, politics and vitriol, and a fun, light break from the everyday.”

Stern followed a handful of professional groomers — all white-presenting women between 20 and 50 years old — for over a year to gather footage for Well Groomed. The women keep busy with their respective grooming businesses, and yet dedicate time, energy and money (one claimed to have spent around $25,000 that year) to competing in creative dog grooming events around the country. Their competition largely consists of women, as well, showing off dogs that have been shaved, brushed, colored and adorned to look like other animals, such as buffalo, chickens or lions, or as homages to Alice in Wonderland, Jurassic Park, Sleeping Beauty, Doctor Who, Moana, Care Bears and more.

A creative dog groomer prepares to compete in the documentary ‘Well Groomed.’ — film still

If you’re an average dog owner, your pet grooming routine is likely limited to dragging a brush through their shedding coat (and a lint roller over the couch), wrestling them into a bear hug to clip their clacking nails and luring them into a sudsy kiddie pool in the backyard for a bath. If your pet is a poodle, Maltese, shih tzu, bichon frise or other breed with a single-layer coat, you’re probably used to taking your dog to a groomer for a good shearing every few months, praying they won’t pee on the lobby floor.

Stern’s subjects, however, treat grooming as both a profession and a hobby — the more challenging, the better. They come against very little to no resistance from their doggy models; in fact, the dogs seem to love the attention, wagging their tails and showing no signs of anxiety or discomfort. The products used to dye and decorate the dogs’ hair are nontoxic, many sold by Angela Kumpe, a champion creative groomer and entrepreneur featured in the film. Kumpe bemoans the fact creative dog grooming is criticized by so many outside of the community as unnatural or exploitative, to the point she and other groomers have received death threats. Rather than take the time to understand their work, critics dismiss them as “freaks,” Kumpe said.

Adrian Pope grooms her poodle Encore in ‘Well Groomed.’ — film still

In this Happy Meal toy of a documentary, Kumpe’s call for a more open-minded attitude towards subcultures you don’t understand is one of the film’s most meaningful moments, acting as a thesis for the film itself. Another comes from South Carolinian groomer Adrian Pope, interviewed on her way to a competition out of state.

“If I could just freeze the moment for a little bit when I’m having fun … Then it’s back to reality: work, being a mom, being a wife. Here at the dog show, you can let your hair down and have a good time. You don’t have to be a mom.”

Pope, and all the women featured, speak to the importance of having a creative outlet, a part of your life that belongs to you alone. It’s an apt message during FilmScene’s Women’s March, their month-long series dedicated to raising up women filmmakers.

Though it’s hard to look away from this pack of tie-dyed dogs, I can’t say I find them too aesthetically satisfying. The fluffy hair sculptures have a crafty look (for some reason, my mind kept drifting to the arts and crafts projects demonstrated on the old Disney Channel show Out of the Box) and the groomers can only be so precise with the non-toxic dye and crayons, so the designs often lack the boldness of, say, one of Lisa Frank’s kaleidoscopic animals. But my and your tastes matter not; that’s kind of the point.

There should be no doubt: Creative dog grooming is an art form, requiring skill, focus and, of course, creativity. It may not make challenging artistic statements, but it’s capable of drawing emotional reactions — generally, gleeful squeals — from both enthusiasts and uninitiated strangers.

Nicole Lansing, a young woman starting her own grooming business, prepares for her first competition in ‘Well Groomed.’ “Creative groomers are my celebrities. I get a little awe-struck,” she says. — film still

If, like me, you’ve watched every dog- and cat-related doc to grace Netflix, Well Groomed is right in your wheelhouse; it is made with the same DIY love and whimsy as 2018’s Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit. There’s a benefit to getting off your couch to see this one, though, even if it means leaving your pet at home: the opportunity to meet the filmmaker herself, enjoy the wine, hors d’oeuveres and desserts included in your ticket price and join one of the first audiences worldwide to see this fetching new film.

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