Arts & Events

Film Review: Worst in Show: A Pack of Humans in Dogged Pursuit of Glory

By Gar Smith
Monday March 21, 2011 - 02:50:00 PM

“Worst in Show” opens at Berkeley’s Elmwood Theater at 7PM on March 24 with a benefit screening for the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society. Tickets (which include a chance to win a raffle) are $20 and can be ordered in advance online at 

The cinematic genre of “competition docs” appears boundless. Before the dawn of TV reality shows, there were documentaries celebrating the glory-and-heartbreak of spelling bees, elementary school dance-offs, crossword puzzle contests and international air guitar competitions. Now, dipping into this endless well of celluloid sociology, local filmmakers John Beck and Don Lewis have produced a critically praised "competition doc" that dares to train its lenses on Petaluma’s “World’s Ugliest Dog” competition — and the odd humans and animals that dwell therein.The poster dog for Petaluma’s 22-year-old competition is “Eyesore Sam,” a hideous hound whose appearance was not just ugly but bolt-out-of-bed-in-the-middle-of-the-night-screaming ugly. (Sam’s death of cardiac arrest made headlines around the world in 2006.) While this is clearly a dog-lovers’ film, the old refrain, “beauty is only skin deep,” will be put to the test with loving close-ups of breeds like the whisker-faced, wart-skinned Chinese crested hairless. 

The title “Worst in Show” (a riff on Christopher Guest’s mockumentary “Best in Show”) could actually be the filmmakers’ subtle commentary on some of the human participants. This is Toddlers-with-Tiaras Syndrome for the four-footed. For two of the protagonists, it is clear that their animal companions are mainly being used as living trinkets — four-footed fashion accessories that serve to adorn somewhat empty lives.A petty competitive squabble that arises between two of the featured male competitors — Dane Andrew and Dawn Goehring (and their respective mini-mutts, “Rascal” and “Icky”) — throws a sour taste into the initially lighthearted foray into a world of happy hype and relaxed self-mockery. Dane comes across as a particularly sad and tiresome promoter who has condemned himself to walk the earth spouting sound-bytes in an endless attempt to score yet another appearance on “The Today Show.” Goehring is a perfect match, dour and defensive, snapping and nipping at his opponent’s heels. 

With tattoos covering his arms, neck and both sides of a shaved skull topped with a gelled Mohawk, a third competitor named Miles Egstad, is the oddest-looking contestant but he turns out to be the most well-adjusted. Unlike wound-up Dane and uptight Dawn, Miles is relaxed and jovial. He relates to Pabst, his overbite-ugly boxer pet, as a companion, not as a ticket to celebrity. 

“Worst in Show” raises a number of ethical questions as competitors resort to ploys ranging from electronic vote-rigging and attempted ballot-buying to the promotion of animals with grotesque and/or heart-tugging deformities. (There is a dark suggestion that some of these debilities may have been human-induced.) 

But the film saves the best beast for last as the latest Ugly Dog Contest is won by a back-of-the-pack upstart named “Princess Abby.” Abby was a rescue dog adopted by Kathleen Francis, an impoverished K-Mart clerk from Clearlake. Francis’ husband had committed suicide after discovering he had throat cancer, leaving her alone. Finding Abby helped Kathleen survive her human loss. And, in a surprising turn of events, when Abby takes the stage at the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest and “walks the red carpet,” the world stops and turns in her direction. The aftermath is just tear-jerkingly wonderful. 

Hard to believe, but this feature was made for a scant $5,000. (There should be a special film award for that.) “Worst of Show” also boasts a great soundtrack and the last film appearance by screen legend Jane Russell.