HBO Sports serves up a short-but-sweet documentary on the whimsical practice of creative dog grooming.
What is art? Can an Instagram picture be art? Can a banana duct-taped to a wall be art? Can grooming a dog be art? While the first two examples are still being deliberated, the third example is definitely art, at least according to HBO Sports’ new documentary, Well Groomed, directed by Rebecca Stern.
Of course, the dog grooming in question isn’t a run of the mill haircut, but the curious art of “creative grooming,” which involves dying a poodle’s fur and then cutting it into distinctive shapes. Some examples used in Well Groomed involve using grooming to make a dog look like a chicken, or styling a dog’s fur so it looks like a picture of a mermaid. While creative grooming is fast becoming a worldwide phenomenon, Stern puts her focus on four American women — Adriane Pope, Angela Kumpe, Cat Opsen, and Nicole Beckman — as they prepare themselves for the world’s biggest grooming competition in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Stern makes clear the amount of creativity, dedication, and work that goes into creative grooming. The women have to dye their dogs’ fur beforehand, and since the dogs almost always have multiple colors in distinct shapes, the process can take weeks. Once they arrive at Hershey, they have 2 and a half hours to cut, comb, and add additional color and accessories onto the dog in front of the judges. After judges evaluate the technical aspects, the contestants must “present” the dog using backgrounds and performances. It’s an intense and demanding process that is emotionally taxing, not to mention expensive (Cat mentions spending $25,000 a year on grooming, while the prize money for the competitions are in the low thousands). It’s clear that the reason they do it because they love it so much.
While Well Groomed doesn’t have a plot per se, the four women have their own stories as they gear up for the expo. Nicole is a newbie, having only completed three prior competitions, who is trying to juggle her career as a creative groomer with her new dog grooming business. Cat is relatively new, although more accomplished than Nicole, but is getting burnt out with competitions. Angela is the brightest star of the creative grooming world, since she is the woman who pioneered new techniques for dog grooming, as well as producing dyes, accessories, and classes for groomers. Adriane is the closest the documentary has for a protagonist, with her being a highly accomplished groomer who is the most likely to beat Angela.
While the women are all competing against each other, no one is antagonistic. Nicole and Cat don’t interact with the other contestants, and Adriane and Angela are friends. Commendably, Stern opts not to focus too much on drama, using the runtime to champion the women as well as their incredible creations. While this lack of conflict may have been boring in a longer feature, the short runtime keeps it from being a problem. This gives Well Groomed a soothing quality that is sweet without being saccharine. This quality is most evident in a scene where Angela wins an award for being “Groomer of the Year”, but in her speech tells the audience that Adriane should have won.
If you’re looking for a deep dive into the history of creative grooming, you won’t find it here. At just under an hour, and with four women to document, Well Groomed isn’t so much an exploration of competitive grooming as it is a profile of the women who use it to channel their creativity. This works well, but a little more context into the competition would have been appreciated. For example, it’s never made clear exactly what the criteria for winning actually are, nor do we see much of the broader culture of the competitions. It would have been nice to see what creative grooming was like before Angela changed the game, but Stern never focuses on anything other than the present.
Well Groomed isn’t so much an exploration of competitive grooming as it is a profile of the women who use it to channel their creativity.
The only time we are shown dog grooming in a broader context is when we are shown clips of the women doing interviews for daytime TV. In these clips, we hear audience members and panelists air their disapproval of creative grooming. It’s here where Stern shows a bit of bias: none of the people who object to it are shown to be veterinarians or experts in dog behavior, and their objections are emotion-based and can be extreme (Angela mentions getting death threats). While it’s understandable that Stern didn’t want to put the focus on the ethics of creative grooming, voicing an objection from an expert would have given the documentary a bit more balance.
Still, this narrow focus does let us connect intensely with the women in a short amount of time. We admire Angela as she runs her business selling products; we cheer on Nicole as she takes over a pet grooming business; our hearts break as Cat loses a competition after putting in so much effort, and we root for Adriane as she perfects her craft in preparation for Hershey. By the time the big competition comes up, we are excited to see what will happen, and the ending where the winner is revealed is an emotional moment.
Whether or not you think that creative grooming is art (or even ethical), there’s a lot to enjoy about Well Groomed. The film has a mellow pace that doesn’t feature any overwrought drama, the women profiled are charming and talented, and the scenes of them doing their thing are shot with dreamy slo-mo close-ups with a whimsical score. It’s a fun little featurette that is the perfect thing to watch while you snuggle with your favorite four-legged friend.