Worst in Show (2011) – By Cary Conley

We all know the title "Best in Show", referring to a winning animal in a contest, typically in dog competitions. But there is a little-known dog contest held annually in Petaluma, California known as "The World’s Ugliest Dog Contest", making the winner of that contest…well, Worst in Show.

This one-hour documentary follows four dog owners as they enter their lovable–if a bit on the homely side–four-legged companions in the annual World’s Ugliest Dog contest. We are introduced to The Veteran (Dog: Rascal), who has been competing for over three decades in ugly dog contests and is on his fourth champion dog; The Rookie (Dog: Icky), who is only just beginning his journey on the ugly dog circuit; The Champ (Dog: Pabst), a laid-back new guy to the circuit who entered his dog on a lark and ended up winning the 2009 contest; and The Underdog (Dog: Winston), a clueless young lady who thinks her dog should win because he has a scar caused by Hurricane Katrina and was traumatized by the storm.

Now, animal lovers are notoriously quirky and can do some really strange things all to further the cause of their pet. In fact, the new vogue is to do away with the term "pet" for the more politically correct term "animal companion". Whatever. These pet owners are no different. The film allows us to enter into a strange, competitive world not unlike beauty pageants. And just like beauty pageants–or any other national or international competition–there is plenty of drama to go around. While the animals do their thing for no one in particular and take the contests all in stride, their human companions get bent out of shape, conspire against each other, spread false rumors, and gossip about each other at every opportunity. This makes for some very sad–and highly entertaining–scenes.

We learn about The Veteran who warns The Champ not to enter into any contracts after winning last year’s event, even as The Veteran goes behind his back to secure a lucrative contract for himself and his ugly dog. We learn about The Rookie, who seems generally very laid back, but is willing to fork over big bucks at various contests to beat The Veteran just because it gets under The Veteran’s skin. The Champ is also pretty nonchalant, but can clearly see through The Veteran’s ploys, refusing to talk to him or answer his phone calls. The Veteran is an outwardly nice guy, but secretly thinks there are conspiracies against him and his dog. He’ll do anything to win, and he also uses the fame of his dog to live a lifestyle of vicarious fame for himself. Perhaps the most clueless contestant, however, is the pathetic girl who rescued an injured German shepherd from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The dog, named Winston, looks completely normal with the exception of a large–but not particularly grotesque–scar on the top of his head. The young lady, Ashley, loves Winston very much and has a great deal of sympathy for what her dog has been through. But the dog is frankly outclassed by the sheer physical ugliness at this event and has no chance whatsoever of winning. Ashley cannot understand why the trauma her dog suffered shouldn’t merit a contest win–even if that trauma has nothing to do with the contest. She comes across as sad and slightly dimwitted.

To everyone’s surprise, there is a newcomer to the 2010 event: Princess Abby, a mutt of a dog rescued from starvation by an aging lady who lived a lonely existence before discovering the dog. Princess Abby is severely deformed due to inbreeding; consequently, she is a misshapen mess, with an arched back, elongated hind legs, and too-short front legs. In short, she is a freak of a dog. But just like her new owner saved her, Princess Abby has also saved her owner. The owners’ longtime human companion committed suicide and she is having a hard time coping with his horrific death (he stepped into an oncoming train because he had end-stage throat cancer). The dog and owner rapidly become inseparable, each reviving the other. I won’t divulge who actually wins the 2010 World’s Ugliest Dog contest, but it is high drama–and quite humorous as well. By the way, I will say the eventual winner was NOT the ugliest dog in the contest. The ugliest dog had only seconds worth of screen time and was anonymous, but I caught myself actually having to look away from the screen at this particular dog, it was so hideous. Maybe next year….

On the surface, Worst in Show is an hilarious look at the life of certain dog owners and of a quirky but popular annual contest. What fascinated me most, though, was the intimate look at some of these owners and how sadly pathetic some of their lives were. Living from year-to-year just to get a chance to appear on The Today Show–or worse, the Regis and Kelly Show–creating web pages for your animals and conspiracy theories against other owners, and praying for a lucrative "modeling contract" for your ugly animal strikes me as absurd. Shots of owners surrounded by their animal’s trophies as if they were their own and scenes that allow them to explain how unfair it was that their dog didn’t win are a bit ludicrous.

On the sordid side, there are scenes with contest officials explaining how some contestants write computer programs to hack into their account to skew contest voting, or the concerns that some dog owners may maim their animals in order to win (this was mentioned only as a concern–each dog must be cleared by contest-hired vets before being entered into the contest to prevent intentional harm to any animal), and even one case when a dog dying of cancer was entered as a means of raising money to finance the dog’s operation. But by-and-large, most people come to the annual contest for fun and to see some of the craziest-looking dogs on Earth.

Worst in Show is both sad as well as very funny and ultimately a highly entertaining peek into the lives of dog owners and of a unique contest for some of the ugliest creatures on the face of the planet. The film is being released by Breaking Glass Pictures. For more information, go to breakingglasspictures.com or www.worstinshowmovie.com.