From Southern California to upstate New York, South Carolina and Arkansas, Well Groomed takes viewers deep into a tiny niche of canine-related Americana. The feature-length documentary follows four dog-loving groomers over the course of a year as they push their craft into a competitive, technicolor art form. The constant tail-wagging and apparent grins on the poodles who are their models and beloved pets leave little doubt the dogs are as into it as the humans.
“I was motivated to tell this story because of a lot of loves,” says first-time director Rebecca Stern. “The love of dogs (and cats!), the love of traveling around the U.S., the love of creative people, and of exploring something I had no idea even existed.” Not many people have an inkling about creative grooming, “creative” for short, but somehow after seeing Well Groomed, you get the impression of course this exists, makes perfect sense. Despite being banned in some states and countries, the pooches competing in this film are absolutely cherished.
From a just-right original score by Dan Deacon featuring glockenspiel and vibraphones to the obvious trust established among Stern, director of photography Alexander Lewis and the champion groomers on long drives from their homes to the competitions, it’s an intimate and charming excursion into a world that is devoid of political animosity.
We meet Adriane Pope, the most charged-up about winning; newbie Nicole Beckman; Angela Kumpe, O.G. of creative grooming and mentor who supplies fiercely vetted products for coloring and adorning the dogs; and award-winner in both breed and creative grooming, Cat Opson of Dana Point.
“We’ve had a lot of people do documentaries or TV shows on creative,” says Opson, who appears in the film with her competition partner Kobe. “And most of the time, the questions they’re asking and the things they try to get you to say are reality-TV type—really catty, a lot of drama. But there’s not a lot of that in the creative grooming world.”
Stern’s queries made it clear from the get-go she wasn’t interested in manufacturing any hoopla or hatred. “You could tell that she honestly wanted to know the story and wasn’t looking for drama,” continues Opson, who owns Estrella Pet Grooming in San Juan Capistrano, where we spoke among dozens of trophies. “So I trusted that.” Having a mic on all the time, even in your own home, worried her during the filming, but she’s happy with the final cut. “Becky did a really good job of showing how everyone had proud and happy moments, everyone had sad moments and disappointments—she did a good job of making you look disappointed but not a bad loser.”
“I have an aversion to tons of gear, so we kept everything almost too light,” says the director. “We also filmed in very small places with many dogs around, so we knew the gear had to be flexible. At Alexander’s suggestion, we also used a vintage Canon 11.5-135 mm lens that allowed us to zoom closely into fur and eyes or at competitions without spooking the dogs.”
“The dogs loved Rebecca,” adds Opson. “And they loved Alex, the cameraman; he was great with them. He was intuitive enough to see if he was getting too close, and if it made the dogs nervous, he would back up. Kobe sometimes is not into the really big cameras like they have on Jimmy Kimmel.” The two have appeared on the show numerous times for its annual Canine Costume Parade. Kimmel makes a joke each time about a woman named Cat who grooms dogs. One year, Opson created a Scooby-Doo theme, with a monster chasing the dog on the dog, prompting the host to make an Inception joke.
Well Groomed was completed in February and had its world premiere the following month at SXSW Film Fest. “They put us all up in the same house, so I got to meet Nicole [Beckman] and her husband,” says Opson. “They’re a really fun couple. One of my favorite moments in the movie isn’t even mine; it’s hers. She’s shaking and crying and singing [during the presentation], and he puts his hand on her shoulder and rubs her shoulder so supportively. It’s so sweet, such a sweet moment.”
The presentation portion of the creative competitions is the most baffling part, heartfelt but a little cheesy. Once “scissors down!” is called, the judges make a close inspection of the coloring and cutting techniques. Then friends or family members wearing costumes join in with a song or acrobatics or props in hopes of the coveted People’s Choice award, which comes with a monetary prize and a cover shoot on Groomer to Groomer magazine.
“There are only two rules,” explains Opson. “You can only have two minutes max, and you’re not allowed to bring any animals that aren’t dogs—because that’s happened before. Someone brought a bunch of snakes. She had real snakes, and she had a fake snake in the basket with the real snakes, and she threw that fake snake into the audience, and people were terrified. So they made the rule no more animals that are not dogs.”
Kobe and Opson have taken a break from creative competition since shooting on Well Groomed finished, and his multiple hues have finally grown out to white. “But with the film festivals happening,” Opson says about the dog-friendly screenings, “I gave him a rainbow Mohawk and a rainbow tail.” He’ll be at both NBFF screenings if you want to get an autograph, a grin, or a hand lick.
Well Groomed screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival at the Triangle’s theater 5, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa. Sat., 2:30 p.m.; also at THE LOT’s theater 3, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach. Mon., 12:30 p.m. $16. For more information about the festival, visit www.newportbeachfilmfest.com.