If a bar was set for competition-based documentaries last decade with the edge of your seat drama and opposition in “Spellbound” and “The King of Kong” (which I named as the best of their kind for the 2000s), two recent films have proven that suspenseful editing and formulaic narrative is not necessary for engaging non-fiction stories. Last week I reviewed “Kings of Pastry,” which isn’t really about a contest but rather an examination, and it’s comparatively slight and insignificant but it works. Now I’ve just seen the festival-touring “Worst in Show,” a doc about the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest that ignores intensity for basic human-interest magic.
Obviously it’s also a dog-interest story. The hour-long film takes us to Petaluma, California, for the 2010 competition of hideous canines (you’ve no doubt heard of Sam, the undefeated pooch who put the contest on the map). But it’s not Animal Planet fluff. And the real freak show is with the owners. I’m not necessarily saying some of them are ugly — though what they say about pets and their owners looking alike is validated here — so much as they’re just amazingly odd (but not mocked or exploited as such). Christopher Guest could not make up characters better than what you find here.
Topping them all is the closest thing to a Billy Mitchell-size villain: lifelong competitor and name-dropping celebrity-hound Dane Andrew (seen in the film meeting the late Jane Russell, possibly her last screen appearance), whose dog Rascal is a veteran champion and descendant of a record-holding eight-time winner. He could go on and on about other achievements, and he definitely would. He even has highlight reels ready for you if you need them.
Directors John Beck and Don R. Lewis spend a good amount of time focusing on the rivalry between Andrew and the more humble Miles Egstad, whose ogreish dog Pabst won the contest in 2009. Yet they don’t force anything, and when the contest happens it unfolds without the sort of prolonged pace we’ve come to expect from both films and reality series centered on competitions.
Nowadays that kind of nail-biting drama only really works for TV shows that can keep things a secret until the winners are announced after lots of tense music and purposely frustrating commercial breaks. A documentary on a year-old event that’s heavily covered by the media? You may already have heard who the current World’s Ugliest Dog is, so there’s not much point in dwelling on that aspect of the story or the overall phenomenon.
This film is not necessarily a document of a specific contest even if it only documents a single year. It’s about the people and controversial attraction that made it happen in the past and today. If you’ve heard of the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, you likely want to know more about it, and “Worst in Show” delivers on both informativeness, including critical judgment against its allegedly cruel cause, and character. I presume it captures a broad atmospheric look at not just Petaluma’s annual contest but the greater ugly dog culture that now exists.
In some ways it is a simple puff piece similar to so-so competition-based docs like “Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating” and “Wordplay,” which do more to promote their events than provide insight into them or riveting stories within. “Worst in Show” isn’t a great work but it is a worthwhile one, partly because it doesn’t adhere to a conventional structure (and just as I wrote recently about “Norman Mailer: American,” some docs are appropriately unpolished).
The film doesn’t end when the 2010 event is over, instead following a character for an extensive sequence that I initially complained should have instead been included with the pre-contest footage even if that meant a manipulation of chronological truth. Ultimately I appreciated the direction the doc heads in because it’s not expected in a storytelling sense and it is actually quite touching (my fiancee cried), which is what you should expect from an indie film about the interesting humans who love interesting creatures.
The next stop for “Worst in Show” is the Sacramento International Film Festival on April 12, 2011. Sadly, it won’t be playing at SXSW, where I think it would do quite well.