Review: ‘Hero Dog: The Journey Home,’ starring Natasha Henstridge and Steve Byers

May 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Steve Byers in “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Hero Dog: The Journey Home”

Directed by Richard Boddington

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city in Ontario, the family drama “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” features a nearly all-white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A blind man who’s stranded on a boat with his sister’s dog decides the best way to get rescued is to walk through the woods with the hope that the dog will lead the way back home.

Culture Audience: “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a silly rescue film with terrible acting and a very predictable plot.

Morgan DiPietrantonio, Zackary Arthur, John Tench and Natasha Henstridge in “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Let’s say you’re a blind person with an Alaskan Malamute dog on a boat that’s crashed near a wooded area because the boat’s captain had a heart attack. You, the dog and the unconscious captain are the only living beings on the boat. The crashed boat can be seen by a rescue helicopter that’s sure to be on its way when you’ve been reported missing on the boat. Instead of waiting for the rescue helicopter, you decide to take the dog and walk through the dense woods (where you won’t be seen by the rescue helicopter) because you think the dog will lead you back to your home.

That’s the plot of the mind-numblingly awful “Hero Dog: The Journey Home,” written and directed by Richard Boddington. The movie is so bad that the only heroic thing that the dog does is show some common sense when the humans in the movie make very dumb decisions. Meanwhile, viewers who sit through this junkpile film will either laugh or groan as one absurd thing after another keeps happening. This pseudo-adventure movie really is as corny and stupid and you might think it is.

In “Hero Dog: The Journey Home,” Royce Davis (played by Steve Byers) is the protagonist who makes blind people look bad because the filmmakers want viewers to think that someone who doesn’t have eyesight also doesn’t have common sense. In the beginning of the film, Royce gets on a small boat captained by Fred Boggs (played by Colin Fox), who will be taking widower Royce back to Royce’s family home in the woods, in an unnamed rural part of Ontario, Canada.

Royce has an Alaskan Malamute seeing-eye male dog named Chinook with him on this boat trip. For reasons that aren’t clearly explained in the movie, the dog doesn’t belong to Royce. Instead, the dog belongs to his married sister Susan Wade (played by Natasha Henstridge), who has been taking care of Royce’s two kids while Royce was away on a trip. Apparently, the best way to get to the Davis family’s isolated home is by boat and then by taking a long trek through the woods.

The movie doesn’t say when Royce’s wife died, but his two children are 13-year-old Max Davis (played by Zackary Arthur) and Erin Davis (played by Morgan DiPietrantonio), who’s about 11 or 12 years old. During his conversation with Captain Boggs, Royce mentions that he got a job offer in the city, so the family will be moving there soon. However, Max isn’t too happy about this impending move because he’s an outdoorsy boy who loves the rural area where they currently live. Royce also tells Captain Boggs that he lost his eyesight at age 19, when he was blinded by a roadside bomb when he served in the Afghanistan War.

Not long after the boat sets sail, Captain Boggs has a heart attack, and the boat crashes near an embankment. The boat’s radio can only get static. Royce fumbles for his cell phone and can’t get a signal. Captain Boggs is still alive but unconscious, and Royce doesn’t know how much longer Captain Boggs has to live. Not knowing what to do, Royce waits in the boat until help can arrive. Food and bottled water are in the boat, so he and the dog have enough to survive for at least two days.

Meanwhile, Susan knows something is wrong when Royce doesn’t show up as scheduled, so she contacts the local authorites. Since it’s already night when she reports Royce missing, the police officer in charge, named Captain Walker (played by John Tench), tells Susan and the kids that the rescue operation can’t begin until the morning. Everyone in the family is naturally upset and panic-stricken.

Luckily for Royce, his boat is at an embankment that’s visible from the air. But the next morning, instead of waiting to be rescued, Royce says out loud that he needs to find his way back home so that Captain Boggs can get a chance to get medical help. Royce tells Chinook that they’re going to leave Captain Boggs in the boat and walk through the woods until they find their way back home. It’s at this point in the movie, viewers might be yelling at the screen at how moronic this decision is, but there would be no “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” if Royce acted sensibly in this story.

Before Royce leaves the safety of the boat, he leaves a note to say that he’s going back home. Instead of waiting to be rescued from a boat that can be seen by helicopter, Royce goes into the dense woods with Chinook where they can’t be seen by helicopter and where Royce could possibly fall down and hurt himself. And yes, that fall does happen in the movie. Viewers won’t have much sympathy for this dimwit when it happens.

Meanwhile, Max and Erin think they can do a better job than the adult professionals in finding Royce. And so, they both sneak off to go into the woods to find their father. At first, Erin is reluctant and thinks it’s a bad idea. But when she sees that Max is determined to go with or without her, she huffs, “I can’t let you get all the credit!” And so, off they go with just a backpack filled with the bare minumim of food and supplies.

When Susan finds out that Max and Erin have gone missing, she immediately knows that they’ve gone in the woods to look for their father. Susan wants to go in the woods too, so she can look for Max, Erin and Royce. But then, Captain Walker says the most sensible thing that anyone says in this asinine movie: “Mrs. Wade, I already have three members of your family lost in the wildnerness. I don’t need a fourth.”

Of course, because this movie has to pile on the drama, people who go in the woods encounter wild animals who attack. A mountain lion makes an appearance. In another scene, there’s a wolf. The kids encounter a skunk. This movie is so heavy-handed and unrealistic with the large wild animal encounters, why not bring out a whole managerie of wild animals at this point? Bears need representation too.

Royce and Chinook inevitably get lost. So much for a “hero dog.” One of the worst things about this movie is that during his foolish walk in the woods, Royce brings out a flare gun, which he could’ve easily used when he was on the boat. And then there’s the idiotic scene with Royce trying to start a fire, without any thought of what a disaster it would be to accidentally start a forest fire that Royce can’t put out quickly because he can’t see. It’s not as if Royce has access to any fire hoses or buckets of water.

The scenes with Max and Erin aren’t much better. Erin is a whiny brat, while Max is an insufferable know-it-all. And, of course, it starts to rain and something happens to their backpack of food and supplies. And what is the “hero dog” doing during all of this drama? Just trying to stay alive, while Royce makes one stupid decision after another.

One of these nonsensical decisions is to destroy his cell phone so he can use the mirror interior as some kind of glare signal in the woods, where a glare signal wouldn’t be seen anyway because there are too many trees. Royce is supposed to be someone with military training, but he seems to have no survival skills. The absurdity goes on and on. And so does the bad acting by most of the cast.

Henstridge and Tench are the only cast members whose acting approaches anything close to believable. Everyone else overacts and they sound like they’re reciting lines, not having natural-looking conversations. Everything about this film is done with such unrelenting, self-important ridiculousness, with no humor whatsoever. There isn’t much to like about this movie except the dog. And it’s too bad this innocent dog was forced to be in this embarrassing mess.

Lionsgate released “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” on digital, VOD and DVD on March 23, 2021.

Review: ‘Gunda,’ a documentary about farm life from the perspectives of animals

April 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Gunda and one of her piglets in “Gunda” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Gunda”

Directed by Victor Kosakovsky

Culture Representation: Taking place on a farm in an unnamed Norwegian city, the documentary film “Gunda” focuses on a sow (female pig) named Gunda, her piglets, a flock of chickens and a herd of cows.

Culture Clash: Farm life can be precarious for animals that are bred as meat for humans.

Culture Audience: “Gunda” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a minimalist animal documentary, with no voiceover narration, captions or music.

Two of Gunda’s piglets in “Gunda” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Neither brilliant nor mindless, the documentary film “Gunda” is a minimalist chronicle of animal life on a Norwegian farm in an unnamed city, from the perspectives of some of the animals. The movie was filmed in black and white, so it looks artsier than it really is. “Gunda is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like animal documentaries.

Directed by Victor Kosakovsky, “Gunda” stands out from most other animal documentaries because it has no voiceover narration, captions or music. Therefore, whatever viewers get out of the movie will be exactly what’s shown on screen, not because the filmmakers are interpreting or explaining the animals’ actions. Any humans who are briefly shown in the documentary (to transport animals) do not speak in the movie.

A female pig named Gunda gets most of the screen time because it shows her from the moment she gives birth to a litter of about 11 pigs. (The documentary’s other animals don’t have names in the movie.) The first scene in the movie is of Gunda giving birth to this litter. Not long after she gives birth, Gunda accidentally steps on one of the piglets, which screams out in pain but is unharmed.

In addition to the pigs, the movie shows two cows and some chickens, with particular focus on a one-legged chicken. An example of a scene involving the chickens is when a chicken tentatively steps out of a cage, where it was confined with other chickens. There are closeups of the chicken’s feet as it steps on the grass. A visually striking scene with the cows is when at least 25 cows run outside of a barn, and this gallop is shown in slow-motion. The cows are also shown outside while it’s raining.

Viewers of “Gunda,” which was filmed for less than a year, get to see the piglets grow older. There are multiple scenes of Gunda nursing them. There’s a scene where the piglets go in an open field to play and rough house with each other. And there’s the inevitable scene of Gunda wallowing and resting in mud.

Because this movie takes place on a farm, not an animal sanctuary, these animals are being raised for one main reason: as meat for humans. One of the exceptions is an elderly female cow that’s shown in the documentary. Because there are no humans talking in the movie, it’s never explained why this female cow was lucky enough to survive and wasn’t killed for meat.

“Gunda” director Kosakovsky was inspired to make the film because of an experience he had in his childhood. He describes it in his director’s statement in the “Gunda” production notes: “Growing up I was very much a city kid, but at the age of 4, I spent a few months in a village in the countryside, where I met my best friend Vasya. He was much younger than me—just a few weeks old when we met—but over time he became my dearest friend and the times we spent together are some of the most cherished memories from my childhood. One day, when we were still young, Vasya was killed and served as pork cutlets for a New Year’s Eve dinner. I was devastated and immediately became (probably) the first vegetarian kid in the Soviet Union.”

It should be noted that Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is a well-known vegan and animal rights activist, is an executive producer of “Gunda.” Is the movie a vegetarian/vegan propaganda film? No, because it doesn’t preach about how these animals should be treated. It just shows a “slice of life” view of what it was like for these particular animals on this particular farm.

In that sense, “Gunda” is like any other documentary about farm animals that will give people more thought about animals that are killed for human consumption. Almost every up-close documentary about animals will show that animals have emotions and form family bonds with each other. It’s not revelatory to anyone who’s seen a lot of animal documentaries or has experienced living with domesticated animals.

“Gunda” is at its best when it shows the relationship that Gunda has with her piglets. The cinematography brings an intimacy to how this relationship evolves as the piglets become more independent. The ending of the movie is not surprising, but it will still tug at people’s heartstrings.

If “Gunda” could be described in terms of independent cinema, it’s the type of movie that’s like a mumblecore documentary for farm animals. There’s no specific, exciting narrative, because viewers are basically watching farm animals live their lives. It’s the type of movie best appreciated if viewers have no distractions and can see the movie on the largest screen possible. It’s hard to imagine “Gunda” holding people’s interest for very long if they watch the movie on a phone.

“Gunda” also isn’t recommended for people who get irritated by constant sounds of pigs grunting and squealing. It’s sounds obvious that you’ll hear these noises when watching this movie, but without any music to drown out the animal sounds or to manipulate emotions, the sounds of pig grunts and squeals become even more pronounced. People will either tolerate it or be turned off by it.

As a technical feat, “Gunda” isn’t very mindblowing, but it gets the job done in all the right places. This is a movie that might bore people who prefer animal documentaries that were filmed in exotic and difficult-to-film locations. But for people who want an intimate look at the common ground between the emotions in animals and humans, “Gunda” offers an immersive experience that requires patience to watch the entire movie.

Neon released “Gunda” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The movie goes into wider release on April 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Stray’ (2021), starring Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal

March 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zeytin in “Stray” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Stray” (2021)

Directed by Elizabeth Lo

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2017 to 2019, in Istanbul, Turkey, the documentary “Stray” follows the lives of a select number of stray dogs in the city.

Culture Clash: Syrian refugee teens who are homeless take care of some of the dogs, but their vagrant and unstable lifestyles make their ability to care for the pets very dubious.

Culture Audience: “Stray” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching a documentary about dogs that live on the streets and how the city of Istanbul handles these homeless pets.

Zeytin and another dog in “Stray” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

People who’ve seen director Ceyda Torun’s 2017 documentary “Kedi” (about stray cats in Istanbul) can view director Elizabeth Lo’s documentary “Stray” (about stray dogs in Istanbul) as a great companion piece. You don’t have to see one documentary to enjoy the other, but it’s worth comparing and contrasting the two films. “Stray” is a more heart-wrenching movie than “Kedi” because homeless dogs in Istanbul seem to have it much harder than homeless cats.

Whereas “Kedi” focused on seven cats (male and female) and gave each about the same amount of screen time, “Stray” features three dogs (all female) in the spotlight, but one dog in particular gets the majority of the screen time. Her name is Zeytin, a tan Labrador Retriever mix with a personality that’s utterly endearing. She is friendly, smart and independent. And even in harsh circumstances, she maintains her dignity. A lot of humans could learn from a dog like Zeytin.

“Stray” begins with a prologue stating: “Turkish authorities have tried to annihilate stray dogs since 1909, leading to mass killings of Istanbul’s street dogs for the last century … Widespread protests against the killings transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog.”

What does that mean for stray dogs like Zeytin? They are allowed to roam free on the streets, but there doesn’t seem to be the type of organized system for animal adoptions that other countries have. Stray dogs in Istanbul wear government tags on their ears to indicate if they have been spayed or neutered. The documentary (which was filmed from 2017 to 2019) is cinéma vérité style, from the point of view of the dogs, with no interviews and no background information on Istanbul’s animal shelters.

Zeytin has a close female companion named Nazar, a beige Labrador Retriever mix with a darker-toned face than Zeytin. Nazar also has blue pen markings all over her fur. By comparison, Zeytin looks remarkably well-kept for a stray dog.

Zeytin’s fur looks clean and doesn’t show any signs of mange or flea infestations. And she doesn’t look injured. The ages of Zeytin and Nazar are unclear, but an unknown person in the movie mentions that Zeytin looks young.

There’s a scene in the movie that shows the dogs near the beach. And although there’s no scene in the movie of the dogs swimming in the water, you get the feeling that Zeytin knows a place where she can wash herself on a regular basis. She’s smart and resourceful. If you believe that dogs have souls, then she has a good one.

Zeytin and Nazar begin following a group of Syrian refugee teenage boys (who look to be about 13 to 16 years old) who are also homeless. The dogs end up staying with the boys in an abandoned building. A few of the boys’ names are heard here and there. One is named Jamil. Another one is named Halil. They make money by asking for handouts or selling random items.

There’s a core group of about four or five of these refugee teens who hang out together and take care of Zeytin and Nazar. In the abandoned building, one of the boys talks about how he went to an immigration office with his family to apply for a refugee work permit, but the government only had a record of his family members, not him.

The personal stories of the other boys are not told in the documentary. But they all habitually sniff glue in plastic bags to get high, which is an indication of their emotional pain. The teens are eventually kicked out of the building by the apparent owner, who threatens to have them arrested for trespassing and loitering. The kids beg him to let them stay there and say they won’t make any trouble, but he refuses. He also scolds them about sniffing glue.

One of the things that people might dread in watching a documentary like this is the sight of any dogs being abused. Fortunately, there is no animal abuse in the movie, but it doesn’t sugarcoat how rough life on the streets can be for these dogs. The teen refugees often talk about how hungry they are, so it’s probably the same for the dogs. When a charity food truck comes by during its scheduled stop, the refugees run to it and get enough food for themselves and the dogs.

Zeytin and other stray dogs also get food by rummaging through garbage or by hanging out near restaurants and street food vendors. There’s a scene of Zeytin sleeping outside near tables at a café. And like clockwork, Zeytin is shooed away by an employee about the same time every day until she finds somewhere else for her daytime nap.

Food vendors will usually chase the dogs away, but a few will give the dogs their scraps. And on rare occasions, a random stranger will stop to give the dog some store-bought food. But most people on the street ignore the strays.

Some people with their own pet dogs are afraid to let their pets near the strays. One woman who’s walking her Jack Russell Terrier named Bella reacts to seeing Zeytin by nervously scooping up Bella and saying about Zeytin, “She might kill you,” even though Zeytin is harmless and shows no signs of aggression.

Zeytin and Nazar have an overall congenial relationship, but they show their contrasting temperaments in two different scenes. Nazar is more ill-tempered and has a tendency to be greedy and possessive, compared to Zeytin who tends to be calmer and more generous. However, Zeytin is not afraid to defend herself if necessary.

In one scene, some meaty bones are discarded on the street. Nazar growls and snaps at Zeytin to prevent Zeytin from getting near the bones, because Nazar wants all the bones to herself. Zeytin is able to sneak off with one of the bones though. In another scene, Nazar playfully greets another dog named Zilli, but Nazar (who is nearby) seems to get jealous and starts a vicious fight with Zeytin. The teenagers have to separate the two dogs, and one of the boys comforts Zeytin, who looks sad that her friend turned on her for no good reason.

Zeytin’s demeanor with other dogs is so approachable and friendly that the documentary shows that she can win over dogs who look mean and tough. She encounters a pack of about 10 to 12 dogs, and some of them try to bully her. But when she defends herself, she earns their respect, and they let her hang out with their pack for a while. Zeytin is never seen instigating a fight.

She also has an independent streak because she doesn’t seem to want to stay with one pack for too long. In the production notes for “Stray,” director Lo commented: “Zeytin quickly emerged as the focus of our production because she was one of the rare dogs we followed who did not inadvertently end up following us back. To the very last day of shooting, she remained radically independent.”

When strangers approach Zeytin on the street, she is curious and amiable. A man with a daughter who looks about 3 years old encourages his daughter to pet Zeytin. In another scene, a passerby remarks that Zeytin is a beautiful dog.

And in one of the film’s scenes that can be considered laugh-out-loud funny, Zeytin and some other dogs are wandering in the streets while a feminist protest is happening, with women holding signs and shouting about their rights. In the middle of this protest, a male dog mounts Zeytin and starts having sex with her. One of the women in the crowd shouts jokingly to the dogs, “Not now, guys! Please!” Another woman says to the male dog about his sexual intercourse with Zeytin, “Do it only if she wants to! Ask her first!”

Another dog that’s featured in the documentary, but not as prominently as Zeytin and Nazar, is a black and white pitbull mix puppy named Kartal, who’s about four or five months old. Zeytin first meets Kartal when Zeytin and some other dogs walk near a family home where Kartal is outside with another puppy from the litter and Kartal’s mother. Zeytin approaches as if to greet the other dogs, but Kartal’s mother growls protectively and doesn’t let the other dogs get too close.

Later in the movie, some of the teenage refugees go back to the house and beg the dog’s owner to let them take one of the puppies. The owner refuses but hints that they can come back at night and steal the puppy they want. The boys end up stealing Kartal, whom they rename Sari. The puppy often looks confused, but the boys make sure that she’s kept safe, and there’s a moment when Kartal/Sari finds another puppy as a temporary play companion.

Zeytin seems to have mixed feelings toward Kartal/Sari as a new arrival to this pack. Zeytin is not hostile to Kartal/Sari, but she’s not overly welcoming either. When Kartal/Sari tries to snuggle up to Zeytin or try to play with her, Zeytin moves away, as if she’s uncomfortable being a babysitter. Kartal/Sari’s time with this group of homeless teens doesn’t last long though. (Don’t worry, she didn’t get hurt.)

You don’t have to be an animal enthusiast to enjoy “Stray,” although it certainly makes a difference in how you might look at and remember this film. Even though the dogs in the movie do not have an ideal life, they are protected under Istanbul law. And that probably gives them a better chance not to be openly abused and murdered by people on the streets.

There’s a resilience to these dogs but also a constant sense of worry about where and how they are going to get their next meal, as well as how they are going to stay safe. Life on the streets means these strays can belong to anyone and no one at the same time. Unlike homeless humans, homeless dogs can’t sign up for emergency shelters or apply for government aid. But the last five minutes of “Stray” (which has the best scene in the movie) is a clear indication that dogs can have feelings and reactions just like a lot of humans do. And they also deserve to be seen, heard and treated with kindness.

Magnolia Pictures released “Stray” in U.S. virtual cinemas on March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Through the Night’ (2020), starring Deloris Hogan and Patrick Hogan

January 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Deloris “Nunu” Hogan in “Through the Night” (Photo by Naiti Gamez)

“Through the Night” (2020)

Directed by Loira Limbal

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Rochelle, New York, the documentary “Through the Night” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and Latinos) who are connected in some way to Dee’s Tots Childcare, a family-owned business that does 24-hour childcare.

Culture Clash: Many of the parents who are clients of Dee’s Tots Childcare are overworked and have financial strains that make it hard to afford childcare.

Culture Audience: “Through the Night” will appeal primarily to people who want an insightful look at how a childcare business works when it’s open 24 hours a day.

Deloris “Nunu” Hogan in “Through the Night” (Photo by Naiti Gamez)

Affordable childcare is big issue for a lot of parents who have to work outside the home. And it becomes even more complicated and difficult if parents work the night shift, since many childcare facilities are only open during the day. “Through the Night” (directed by Loira Limbal) takes an intimate look at a family-owned business called Dee’s Tots Childcare (located in New Rochelle, New York) that is one of the few 24-hour childcare places in the area.

The husband and wife who own Dee’s Tots Childcare are Deloris Hogan (nicknamed Nunu) and Patrick Hogan (nicknamed PopPop), who co-founded the business sometime in the late 1990s. Deloris and Patrick take turns in their work shifts to watch the children in their care. The Hogans also have about five or six employees who help with running the business, which cares for children of a wide age range, from infants to those attending high school.

In addition to providing childcare needs (shelter, food, drinks and a place a sleep), Dee’s Tots Childcare gives some basic education in math and English for the children who need it. The childcare center also teaches gardening in a small nearby garden. The atmosphere is very much like a family home, and most of the clients come from working-class households.

Although Deloris and Patrick share duties in running their childcare center, when someone in the documentary comments, “PopPop is king,” Deloris is quick to clarify by declaring: “Actually, I’m queen and the king.” She also talks about why she started the childcare center. Deloris used to be a homemaker, but the idea to start a childcare business happened after a female friend of Patrick’s got into a car accident and asked the couple to look after her son while she was recuperating in the hospital.

Deloris comments on being in the childcare business: “It’s not just a job. This really is our life. My children, ever since they were the age of 2 years old, they had to share me with other children.” The children shown in this documentary are well-behaved and respectful. If people are looking for a comedy-styled film where the childcare center has to contend with some unruly brats, this isn’t that movie. There are plenty of fictional films with a story about kids who make trouble for babysitters.

To make their childcare center as home-like as possible, the Hogans celebrate children’s birthdays. They also give Christmas gifts to the parents and kids who are their regular clients. (Two kid siblings named Naima Harrell and Noah Harrell get a lot of screen time.) And when children in their care age out and become too old for childcare, the Hogans have a graduation ceremony for them. It’s made clear that children who are “alumni” of Dee’s Tots Childcare are welcome to come back and visit. And many of them often do.

“Through the Night” is a bare-bones documentary that is more “slice of life” than groundbreaking. A few parents are interviewed on camera and predictably praise Dee’s Tots Childcare. A registered nurse (who is unidentified) says, “It was hard to make the adjustment to leave my child with someone else for 14 years, but I felt secure with Nunu.” Another unidentified woman, who says she’s a single mother who has two part-time jobs, comments: “If I didn’t have Nunu, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Deloris, who is more talkative and has more screen time than her husband Patrick, also talks about the couple’s courtship. Deloris says that when she met Patrick, she knew pretty quickly that he was “the one” and predicted on their first meeting that they would get married. He was fixing her brother’s bicycle, and Patrick confessed later that this repair job was intentional because he had a crush on Deloris and wanted to be closer to her.

Not everything goes smoothly in the documentary. Deloris experienced major health problems during the course of filming. During a doctor’s visit for numbness in her shoulder, the doctor tells Deloris that if the numbness continues, she will have to have surgery. Deloris says that her shoulder numbness is the result of years of heavy lifting and other physical strains because of her job.

Later in the movie, things get even more serious for Deloris, as she has emergency surgery for a large tumor in her head. After the surgery, she lost 50% of the vision in one of her eyes. Her senses of taste and smell were also significantly diminished.

Despite these health problems, Deloris remains determined to still work in childcare. She also refuses to wallow in self-pity. Deloris says she doesn’t feel sorry for herself because “I could’ve been dead … I have to keep moving because I have something to do.”

Although Deloris mentions that the state of New York could improve its childcare resources, the documentary doesn’t get too much into details about what child caregivers such as the Hogans can do about it. Instead, the documentary shows that Dee’s Tots Childcare is more focused on being involved in community outreach activities. For example, there’s a scene where Dee’s Tots Childcare participates in a local Thanksgiving parade.

“Through the Night” might seem boring to some people who are expecting this documentary to be a faster-paced film. Ultimately, the movie gives a realistic and endearing portrait of how a family-owned business is surviving as a 24-hour childcare center. (“Through the Night,” which had been scheduled for a world premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, was filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic radically altered the childcare industry.) “Through the Night” doesn’t pretend to have any solutions to long-term childcare industry problems, but the documentary presents a story that is relatable to a lot of people.

Long Shot Factory released “Through the Night” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The PBS series “POV” will premiere the movie on May 10, 2021.

ABC announces American version of ‘Pooch Perfect’ series, hosted by Rebel Wilson

January 13, 2021

The following is a press release from ABC:

“Pooch Perfect” (Tuesdays, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET/PT) on ABC

Premiere date: March 30, 2021.

Hosted by award-winning actress Rebel Wilson, “Pooch Perfect” is the ulti-mutt dog grooming competition series. The eight-episode serieswill showcase 10 of the best dog groomers in the country, along with their assistants, competing in a series of paw-some themed challenges. 

Each week on “Pooch Perfect,” teams will compete in the Immunity Puppertunity challenge, where one team will earn immunity from elimination. Then, in the Ultimutt Challenge showdown, the remaining teams will face off in an epic grooming transformation, which they will show off on the illustrious dogwalk. The trio of all-star celebrity judges – Lisa Vanderpump, Jorge Bendersky and Dr. Callie Harris – will be tasked with voting on the incredible creations and ultimately force one team back to the doghouse every week. It all leads up to the season finale where the top three teams compete for a giant cash prize and the coveted “Pooch Perfect” first place trophy.

“Pooch Perfect” is produced by Beyond Media Rights Limited. Elan Gale, Sonya Wilkes and Rebel Wilson serve as executive producers. Nicole Anthony, Mike Rosen, Carley Simpson and Matthew Silverberg serve as co-executive producers. ABC’s “Pooch Perfect” is based off of the Australian format. Episodes can also be viewed the next day on demand and on Hulu.

The Host, Judges and Season 1 Contestants

Episode Photos

2021 Puppy Bowl: see photos and videos

January 6, 2021

Puppy Bowl (Photo by Elias Weiss Friedman/Discovery+/Animal Planet)

 

The following is a press release from Discovery Networks:

“We need puppies now more than ever!” said everyone. Have no fear because television’s cutest sports competition and the original call-to-adoption TV event “Puppy Bowl” returns on Sunday, February 7, 2021 for the biggest, most exciting game to date, now as a 3-hour event that can be viewed on both Discovery+, the definitive non-fiction, real life subscription streaming service that features a landmark partnership with Verizon that gives their customers with select plans up to 12 months of Discovery+ on Verizon, and Animal Planet on February 7, 2021, at 2PM ET/11AM PT. Join Discovery+ and Animal Planet for this special three-hour event to experience all the fuzzy puppy faces from Team Ruff and Team Fluff who go paw to paw to win the Chewy “Lombarky” trophy in “Puppy Bowl’s” all-new venue, a ‘stadium within a stadium’ that’s bigger and better than ever before. Be sure to be on the lookout for Team Ruff who is looking to reclaim their title after last year’s loss – they’re coming back with a vengeance! Gear up because it’s officially the most wonderful time of the year for the biggest game of the year – “Puppy Bowl XVII”!

“Puppy Bowl” celebrates adoptable pups in all their cuteness and showcases the incredible shelters and rescues, as well as their staffers, who dedicate their lives to helping animals find their loving homes. In years past, “Puppy Bowl” is 16 for 16 with the adoption rate at 100% as all puppies and kittens featured in “Puppy Bowl” to date have found their forever homes with loving families. And even though this past year has been different from year’s past, one thing is for certain—there will be a “Puppy Bowl”—and discovery+ and Animal Planet continue this annual tradition to highlight these special puppy players and kittens so that they can finally find the place they are meant to call ‘home.’

This year, 22 shelters and rescues from nine Northeastern States are enlisted to bring 70 incredible adoptable puppy players out for “Puppy Bowl” to sport their Team Ruff ‘Tail Mary Tangerine’ and Team Fluff ‘Bark Blue’ bandana colors. What genetic traits are these pups bringing to the game? With the Wisdom Panel™ dog DNA test, we’ll find out what’s beyond those big puppy dog eyes and how each dog’s breed mix might give them an advantage on the field. We’ll see their skills playout in the brand-new Geico Stadium, where these adoptable players have even more room to rumble and fumble!  Fan-favorite elements, including slow motion replays, nose-to-nose action from the famous water bowl cam, and aerial shots of the field from the brand-new Temptations Sky Box are all back this year, along with epic drone shots of puppy players across the arena that bring audiences as close as possible to all the game-play action. The Home Depot goal post nets serve as the backdrop to every touchdown and field goal as audiences have a front row seat view through lens of the cameras in the Chewy end zone pylons.

Joining this year as “Puppy Bowl XVII” announcers are ESPN’s Monday Night Football play- by- play announcer Steve Levy and SportsCenter host Sage Steele who will be providing puppy analysis throughout the game! The “Puppy Bowl XVII” Pre-Game Show begins at 1 PM ET/ 10 AM PT where long-time “Puppy Bowl” sports correspondents Rodt Weiler, James Hound and Sheena Inu, and field reports Brittany Spaniel and Herman Shepard pump up the crowd with pup insights on the furry matchups before the big game. Sponsored by [ yellow tail ]® wine, the Pre-Game Show will also offer ideas on how to create a “Puppy Bowl” “tail”gate party for the perfect viewing experience. The game opens with a special performance of the National Anthem by singing-group and internet sensation, Boys World, before kicking off with the pups of the Pedigree Starting Lineup, who are giving it their all to compete for the one and only Bissell MVP (Most Valuable Puppy) award by scoring the most touchdowns. Who will take home the title this year to join the greats of puppies past in the Puppy Bowl MVP Hall of Fame? Tune in to find out this and which lucky pup will also take home the coveted Subaru of America Inc. Underdog Award!

Joining the game for the 10th year in a row is America’s favorite “Rufferee,” Dan Schachner, who, after a decade, is ready to call the puppy penalties, ruffs & tumbles, and pawsome touchdowns for a game unlike any other. Award-winning animal advocate and television correspondent Jill Rappaport also returns to introduce the Subaru of America, Inc. Pup Close and Personal segments that shine a light on some of these adorable athletes and other adoptable puppies across the country, in addition to the special Senior Spotlight stories which showcase that age is just a number with senior dogs who are ultimately puppies at heart.

This year’s Pup Close and Personal highlights include a special profile of actress and animal advocate Kristen Bell who has teamed up with Annenberg PetSpace in Los Angeles to spend time with Java, a Labrador mix puppy looking for a fur-ever home to snuggle in; Biscuit, a very special Maltese mix pup from Paw Works in LA, who gets a special day out with one lucky kid baker from Food Network’s ‘Kid Baking Championship,’ where we’ll also hear from hosts Valerie Bertinelli & Duff Goldman; Fozzie, a Foster Dogs Inc. Norwegian Elkhound who experiences his first ever grooming from Harlem Doggie Day Spa; and Foofur, a Shepherd mix puppy who is cared for by a very special foster under the PAWS Chicago foster program. Other in-depth profiles include Marshall, a deaf Boston Terrier mix rescue pup who’s training with Green Dogs Unleashed to be a therapy dog, where at a local hospital, he will provide a group of COVID ER nurses with a much-needed mental break in the midst of the pandemic; Jett, a double front amputee Labrador mix from Pets With Disabilities in Maryland, who is prepping for the big game with regular jaunts along the countryside with his fellow special needs cat and dog companions; and Stitch, a Hound mix, who at Wilburton Inn-New England dog friendly resort in Vermont, enjoys a special day out at the Inn on a mission to meet an adopter, before getting scrappy on the field.

Audiences will also see four incredible Senior Spotlight profiles that include Scoobert, an 8-year-old Chihuahua Boxer mix from mix from Young at Heart Sanctuary in Chicago who even though is a senior pooch with medical needs, has a special zest for life; veterinarian Dr. Kwane Stewart, aka @thestreetvet, who treats homeless dogs off the streets of Los Angeles at no cost; Mona, a 10-year-old Toy Poodle mix who undergoes reiki healing sessions at Den Retreat in Los Angeles for a more peaceful state of mind; and Blossom, an American Staffordshire Terrier, who has become the poster pup for the ‘Pitbulls in flower crowns’ series by rescue advocate and photographer Sophie Gamand. Puppy Bowl XVII will also feature five special needs players who are looking forward to finding their loving home including Jett, and four hearing impaired pups including Marshall, a Boston Terrier; Fletcher, an American Bull Dog; Theodore, a Pyr Border Collie; and Rumor, a Heeler mix.

Additionally, for the first time ever on the sidelines, our Team Ruff and Team Fluff players will be cheered on by none other than adoptable puppy cheerleaders who will root and howl for their favorite players. These cheerleading pups will turn up the volume with cuteness overload by shaking their pom poms as the Puppy Bowl XVII players make their way down the field! Midway through the game, get ready to turn up the beat and put on your dancing shoes for the Arm & Hammer Clump & Seal™ Kitty Half-Time Show. Audiences will experience the neon dance party they’ve been waiting for all year and rave to the purr-fect beats dropped by senior rescue cat DJ Grand Master Scratch. As an after-party treat, viewers will even be able to see a special adoption update on where these dancing felines found their loving new homes with their loving new forever dance partners.

As a bonus treat for this year’s Puppy Bowl XVII, audiences will also see exciting new ‘Adoptable Pup’ segments, hosted by Dan Schachner and sponsored by Chewy. Sprinkled throughout the program, 11 shelters from around the country will feature one of their special pups (and a few kittens during Kitty Half-Time!) that are all up for adoption during the game!

Puppy Bowl digital audiences can point their paws to PuppyBowl.com to vote for their favorite pup in the ‘Pupularity Playoffs’ bracket style tournament featuring photos by Instagram sensation @TheDogist. Audiences can also check out an exciting live puppy playtime scrimmage on Animal Planet’s TikTok in the lead up to Puppy Bowl XVII. Fans may also be able to see their own animal featured in a photo gallery on PuppyBowl.com when they post a pic of their fur-baby watching Puppy Bowl XVII and tag #PuppyBowl. For more fun social content, head to FacebookInstagramTwitter, and TikTok for original videos, GIFs, Instagram Stickers, a Puppy Bowl AR Filter, and more. Audiences can also follow discovery+ on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

Fans can also access even more furry fun and exclusive content by downloading Discovery+. Leading up to “Puppy Bowl,” Discovery+ and Animal Planet GO users will find exclusive in-app original programming, including the “Puppy Bowl” midform series “Pupclose & Personal”, where NFL stars Chris Godwin, Ronnie Stanley, and Ryan Kerrigan reveal their personal pup adoption stories to share why they’re so passionate about canine causes. Pus, we’ll also see Dan the Ref take us down memory lane, highlighting the very best and firsts of “Puppy Bowl’s” 17-year history. Additionally, fans are also invited to Tweet along with game day commentator Meep The Bird and vote in real time, for the winner of the Most Valuable Puppy award. Results will be revealed during the epic program.

Official “Puppy Bowl XVII” sponsors include Arm & Hammer Clump & Seal, Bissell, Chewy, Geico, The Home Depot, Pedigree, Subaru of America Inc., Temptations, Wisdom Panel dog DNA test and [ yellow tail ]® wine.

For more information about the shelters, rescues and organizations that participated in “Puppy Bowl XVII” Animal Planet audiences can visit Puppybowl.com/Adopt.

“Puppy Bowl XVII” is produced for Animal Planet by Bright Spot Content, an All3Media America company. Simon Morris is executive producer and showrunner with Cindy Kain and Sandy Varo Jarrell also serving as executive producers. For Animal Planet, Dawn Sinsel serves as senior executive producer and Pat Dempsey is supervising producer.

Pet Valu announces closure of all U.S. operations; Canada operations to remain open

November 4, 2020

(Photo courtesy of Pet Valu)

The following is a press release from Pet Valu:

Pet Valu, Inc. (“Pet Valu U.S.”), a specialty retailer of pet food and supplies in the United States, today announced plans to commence a wind down of its operations due to severe impact from COVID-19. The Company expects that all of its 358 stores and warehouses in the Northeastern and Midwestern U.S., as well as its corporate office in Wayne, PA, will close by the end of the wind-down process.

Pet Valu U.S. licenses its name and contracts for certain services from Pet Valu Canada, which is a separate company based in Markham, Ontario that is not impacted by this wind down. Pet Valu Canada is a market leading, highly profitable and growing business with a tremendous history and a very bright future. Pet Valu Canada will continue to serve customers across Canada through its approximately 600 stores, franchise locations and e-commerce site at www.petvalu.com/ca/, offering its usual assortment of thousands of pet products and supplies and in-store services such as dog washes and grooming. 

All Pet Valu stores in the U.S. are currently open and ready to serve their devoted pet lover customers through the wind-down process. Customers in the U.S. can continue to use Pet Valu gift cards and loyalty rewards for purchases. Effective immediately, U.S. customers will no longer be able to place orders on the Pet Valu U.S. e-commerce site at www.petvalu.com/us/.

Jamie Gould, Pet Valu, Inc.’s recently appointed Chief Restructuring Officer, said, “The Pet Valu U.S. team is proud to have met the needs of our devoted pet lover customers in the U.S. for more than 25 years. However, the Company’s stores have been significantly impacted by the protracted COVID-19-related restrictions. After a thorough review of all available alternatives, we made the difficult but necessary decision to commence this orderly wind down.”

He continued, “During the store closing process, we will continue to provide our customers with the same great in-store experience, offering them even better deals and value. We will work to assist our dedicated associates through the transition. We thank all of them for their commitment to our company and our customers, and especially for going above and beyond so we could help customers as an essential service during the pandemic.”

Pet Valu U.S. expects to commence store closing sales at all locations in the U.S. in the coming days. The Company will continue to take necessary precautions to keep its stores safe for customers and employees.

The Company has retained Malfitano Partners as its restructuring advisor, SB360 Capital Partners, LLC to assist with store closing sales and A&G Realty Partners, LLC to assist on U.S. real estate-related matters. Mr. Gould joins Pet Valu, Inc. from a successful career of retail restructuring in global assignments in the apparel, eyewear and office products industries. William Transier, Chief Executive Officer of Transier Advisors, has been appointed as independent director to the Board of Directors of Pet Valu, Inc.

AMC Networks partners with Adopt-A-Pet.com for FurFest adoption promotion

October 20, 2020

The following is a press release from AMC Networks:

AMC Networks today announced it has teamed up with Adopt-a-Pet.com, North America’s largest non-profit pet adoption website, for AMC’s annual horror marathon FearFest, to raise awareness for pet adoption with ‘FurFest.’ All month long, AMC, AMC+, and Shudder are encouraging viewers to support Adopt-a-Pet.com’s mission to end the overpopulation of companion animals in shelters and help pets find loving forever homes through custom, PET-tacular spots airing across linear, digital, and social channels.

The custom spots, featuring a few four-legged horror fans, encourage viewers to find their perfect watch buddies through adoptions and especially raise awareness for black cat and black dog adoptions this spooky season. Halloween may be the season for magical black cats, but in reality, they are most often left behind in shelters because of the color of their fur. Many animal welfare organizations call this “black cat syndrome,” with the phenomenon happening with black dogs as well. Through the collaboration, audiences are encouraged and inspired to help fight “black cat syndrome” by adopting these furry friends or by donating to Adopt-a-Pet.com. See the custom spot: 

“We all know that spooky season is best enjoyed with a buddy by your side, which is why we’re thrilled to join forces with Adopt-a-Pet.com to help viewers find their perfect four-legged watch companions,” said Linda Schupack, President of Marketing, AMC Networks Entertainment Group. “The movies on AMC’s FearFest and Shudder are already scary enough. How great to cuddle up with a lovely black cat or black dog for Halloween and beyond.”

“Teaming up with AMC Networks is an exciting and unique way to spread the word about pet adoption,” said Dana Puglisi, Chief Marketing Officer of Adopt-a-Pet.com. “We appreciate AMC and Shudder’s efforts to help get more pets into loving homes. And we love all the extra snuggles those newly adopted pets will receive while their people binge through the FearFest thrills!”

Now in its 24th consecutive year, AMC’s annual horror marathon FearFest brings the frights with an entire month of genre programming from iconic franchises like Halloween and Insidious, and the return of award-winning docuseries Eli Roth’s History of HorrorShudder, dubbed “the ultimate in streaming horror” by Newsweek, offers the best selection of original and classic horror, thriller and supernatural films and series, uncut and commercial free. Both are also now available as part of the new AMC+, a premium streaming bundle featuring only the good stuff, which also includes IFC Midnight’s best genre cinema from independent, foreign and documentary films. In addition to the largest slate of classic horror movies such as Friday the 13th and Halloween, AMC+ also includes all series within The Walking Dead Universe, as well as AMC’s Eli Roth’s History of Horror, and new Shudder programming, such as Joe Bob’s Halloween Hideaway Special and A Creepshow Animated Special, and much more.

See the full FearFest lineup.


Find the Best in Horror at Shudder.

About AMC Networks

Known for its groundbreaking and celebrated original content, AMC Networks is the company behind the award-winning brands AMC, BBC AMERICA, IFC, SundanceTV, WE tv, and IFC Films. Its diverse line-up of popular and critically-acclaimed series and independent films include Killing EveBetter Call Saul and The Walking Dead, which has been the #1 show on ad-supported cable television for ten consecutive years, as well as PortlandiaBrockmireLove After Lockup, and the films BoyhoodDeath of Stalin, and many more. Its original series Mad Men and Breaking Bad are widely recognized as being among the most influential and acclaimed shows in the history of TV. The Company also operates AMC Studios, its production business; AMC Networks International, its international programming business; the subscription streaming services Acorn TV, Shudder, Sundance Now, and UMC; and Levity Entertainment Group, the Company’s production services and comedy venues business. For more information, visit http://www.amcnetworks.com.

About Shudder

AMC Networks’ Shudder is a premium streaming video service, super-serving members with the best selection in genre entertainment, covering horror, thrillers and the supernatural. Shudder’s expanding library of film, TV series, and originals is available on most streaming devices in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. For a 7-day, risk-free trial, visit ​www.shudder.com​.

About Adopt-a-Pet.com

Adopt-a-Pet.com is North America’s largest non-profit pet adoption website, helping over 19,000 animal shelters, humane societies, SPCAs, pet rescue groups, and pet adoption agencies advertise their purebred and mixed breed pets for free to millions of adopters each month. Sponsored by companies including Purina, Chewy, and Elanco Animal Health LLC, Adopt-a-Pet.com helps homeless dogs, cats, and even rabbits and other animals go from alone to adopted.

CBS All Access announces ‘That Animal Rescue Show’

September 22, 2020

“That Animal Rescue Show” (Photo by Danny Matson/CBS Interactive, Inc.)

The following is a press release from CBS All Access:

 CBS All Access, ViacomCBS’ digital subscription video on-demand and live streaming service, today revealed the official trailer and key art for its upcoming original docuseries “That Animal Rescue Show.” Executive produced by five-time Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Richard Linklater and two-time Academy Award winner Bill Guttentag, all 10 episodes will be available to binge exclusively for CBS All Access subscribers on Thursday, October 29, 2020.

“That Animal Rescue Show” follows the animal rescue community in and around Austin, Texas, where Linklater lives. The 10-episode docuseries provides a window into this captivating world through moving, humorous and powerful stories of animals, the humans who love them and the inspiring, life-changing bond that occurs between people who have dedicated their lives to rescue and the animals who rescue them right back.

“That Animal Rescue Show” is produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Dr. Phil’s Stage 29, Linklater’s Detour Filmproduction, and Guttentag and Nayeema Raza’s 1891 Productions. The series is distributed internationally by ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group. An episode of the series was accepted as part of the official selection for the 2020 Telluride Film Festival. In addition to Linklater, Guttentag and Raza, the series is also executive produced by Phil McGraw, Jay McGraw and Julia Eisenman.

“That Animal Rescue Show” joins CBS All Access’ growing slate of original series that currently includes “The Good Fight,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Tooning Out the News,” “No Activity,” “Why Women Kill,” “Interrogation,” “The Thomas John Experience” and “Tell Me a Story,” as well as the upcoming limited event series “The Stand,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “The Harper House” and “Guilty Party.” CBS All Access is also the exclusive domestic home to “Star Trek: Discovery,” “Star Trek: Picard,” the animated series “Star Trek: Lower Decks” and the U.S.S Enterprise set series “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.”

About CBS All Access:

CBS All Access is ViacomCBS’ direct-to-consumer digital subscription video on-demand and live streaming service. CBS All Access gives subscribers the ability to watch more than 20,000 episodes and movies on demand – including exclusive original series, current and past seasons of hit shows from the CBS Television Network and growing libraries from brands across the ViacomCBS portfolio including BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Smithsonian and more, as well as a wealth of films from Paramount Pictures. The service is also the streaming home to unmatched sports programming, including every CBS Sports event, from golf to football to basketball and more, plus exclusive streaming rights for major sports properties, including some of the world’s biggest and most popular soccer leagues. CBS All Access also enables subscribers to stream local CBS stations live across the U.S. in addition to the ability to stream ViacomCBS Digital’s other live channels: CBSN for 24/7 news, CBS Sports HQ for sports news and analysis, and ET Live for entertainment coverage.

The service is currently available across all major device platforms including online, mobile and connected TV and OTT platforms and services. Versions of CBS All Access have launched internationally in Canada and Australia (10 All Access), with unique but similar content and pricing plans. For more details on CBS All Access, please visit https://www.cbs.com/all-access.

About CBS Television Studios:

CBS Television Studios is one of the industry’s leading suppliers of programming with more than 70 series currently in production across broadcast and cable networks, streaming services and other emerging platforms. The Studio’s expansive portfolio spans a diverse slate of commercially successful and critically acclaimed scripted programming, genre-defining franchises including the ever-growing “Star Trek” universe, award-winning late night and daytime talk shows, and an extensive library of iconic intellectual property.

EDITOR’S NOTE: CBS All Access will rebrand as Paramount+, which goes into effect in early 2021.

Review: ‘Starting at Zero,’ starring Tracey Strichik, Steve Bullock, Ralph Northam, Cynthia Jackson, Tara Skiles, James Ernest and Sunny McPhillips

August 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Starting at Zero” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“Starting at Zero”

Directed by Willa Kammerer

Culture Representation: The documentary “Starting at Zero,” about the U.S. education system for children younger than 6 years old, interviews white and black people (and one person of Asian descent), mostly from U.S. states in the South and Midwest, who are educators, politicians, academics and parents representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Because access to a good education is usually determined by socioeconomic factors, most of the people interviewed say that more U.S. states need to do a better job at making it a more level playing field for people to have access.

Culture Audience: “Starting at Zero” will appeal primarily to people who are concerned about education for children under the age of 6, but the documentary puts so much emphasis on states in the South (especially Alabama) and the Midwest that people who live in other regions of the U.S. might be turned off by this bias.

A scene from “Starting at Zero” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The child-education documentary “Starting at Zero” (directed by Willa Kammerer), for all of its noble intentions, is a very flawed and extremely dull film that was in serious need of good editing before this movie was released to the public. “Starting at Zero” is supposed to be about pre-kindergarten (pre-K) education in the United States, but more than half of the movie looks like a public-relations promotional video to glorify the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (ADECE), as if it’s the only government-funded pre-school department that works well in America. It’s best not to play an alcohol drinking game to take a drink every time Alabama is mentioned in this documentary, because that will definitely result in alcohol poisoning. The movie is only 63 minutes long, but it feels like it’s a lot longer.

In the production notes for “Starting at Zero,” Kammerer says that the movie (which is her first feature-length documentary) started out as exploration of why ADECE’s First Class Pre-K program has been consistently ranked #1 for more than a decade by the National Institute for Early Education Research. (There’s no mention in the documentary that Alabama is consistently ranked one of the worst states in the U.S. for education. More on that in a moment.) But as Kammerer and the other filmmakers got deeper into making the documentary, Kammerer says that they “realized there was so much more to the story—that it had roots in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi, and other threads in Oklahoma and Montana, Chicago and Omaha and beyond.”

The problem is that the movie pretty much ignores the “beyond” part, by sticking to interviewing people who are connected to the pre-school education system in the South or Midwest. It’s a huge misstep for a documentary that’s supposed to be about the overall pre-school education system in the U.S., even though the documentary is actually a narrow look at only certain regions of the country. “Starting at Zero” gives the impression that the filmmakers didn’t want to spend the time, money or resources to include other regions of the U.S. outside of the South and Midwest. And that myopic view is just going to alienate a lot of viewers when they see that this is a documentary focused primarily on pre-school education in Southern and Midwestern states.

The fact-finding in this documentary is amateurish and, at times, atrocious. “Starting at Zero” cites statistics but does not list any sources for those statistics, which will make viewers wonder how credible those statistics are. It’s very disappointing that a movie about education seems like it was made by people who have no education in research, such as this basic standard: Always cite your sources.

And in being too eager/biased in promoting Alabama as an ideal state for pre-school education, the filmmakers of “Starting at Zero” completely ignored something that’s common knowledge to many people who are in and outside of the U.S. education system: Alabama is consistently ranked at or near the bottom of all U.S. states in education. According to U.S. News and World Report, Alabama is ranked dead last out of all 50 states in overall education and ranked at #49 out of 50 in education for pre-K to 12th grade.

The lack of diversity in “Starting at Zero” isn’t just with the U.S. regions covered in the film. Although there are several black people interviewed in “Starting at Zero,” Latinos are completely shut out of the documentary, and the only Asian who’s interviewed in the movie (Harvard University professor of public economics Raj Chetty) gets less than a minute of screen time toward the end. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asians and Latinos are the fastest-growing racial groups in the United States. It’s really appalling that a documentary about the education of future generations in the U.S. leaves out significant representation of these racial groups in the documentary.

Only one person in the documentary realistically discusses the issue of how racial diversity impacts U.S. public schools. Cynthia Jackson, executive director of Educare, comments: “There are groups of children—immigrant children, children of color, children from under-served and under-represented communities—that are being left behind because of unconscious bias, because of equity issues.”

And speaking of unconscious bias, “Starting at Zero” has some racist editing too, because every time someone mentions “poor” or “under-performing” students in a voiceover, the film shows children who aren’t white, usually African American children. It reinforces a racist stereotype that non-white students are the only kids in school who could possibly be bad students or poor. The reality is that there are poor people and bad students of all races in America, but the filmmakers of this substandard documentary don’t seem to have a grasp on that reality.

Another major blind spot in “Starting at Zero” is how it barely mentions that being able to afford pre-school child care is a huge issue for many families. Not everyone can afford the “best” pre-schools in their communities. “Starting at Zero” has absolutely no one in the movie who says they’re struggling with being able to afford pre-school childcare, but it isn’t surprising that this perspective is shut out of “Starting at Zero,” since the movie fails on so many levels. Of the long list of people interviewed for this movie (see below), only two are parents who talk about having kids in a pre-school program, and they don’t talk about how it affects their finances.

The movie preaches that every state should eventually have the type of great pre-school child care that will be free to all, in order to “level the playing field” in U.S. education. Several people in the movie declare that since government-funded U.S. education is on the state level, not national level, it will be up to each state to make these improvements. Easier said than done.

Virginia governor Ralph Northam comments, “When one family has the means to send their children to early childhood education programs and another family doesn’t, it’s really what starts the gap. And we can either invest in it responsibly at an early age or can try to catch up later. The math is very simple.”

But the movie never answers this question: “Who’s going to pay for it?” Too many people are already angry at their state governments for raising taxes, and they don’t want higher taxes for the government to pay for these pre-school education programs. And although some people in “Starting at Zero” say that education is a non-partisan issue, the reality is that education funding is a partisan issue when one party can be more resistant than another to raise taxes to improve funding for severely under-funded public schools for children.

And speaking of funding, there’s no real discussion in “Starting at Zero” about the fact that school teachers for children are underpaid and how these severely low salaries are a major problem in attracting “quality” educators in public schools for children. A lot of people in the documentary spout vague platitudes about “high-quality education,” yet it’s irresponsible for the documentary to ignore that it’s harder to attract “high-quality” educators on the pre-school level if the educators aren’t even being paid a living wage.

Some of the ADECE people in the documentary brag that in Alabama, pre-school teachers and kindergarten teachers who work for government-funded schools are paid the same salary. But the documentary doesn’t mention is that teachers on this level all across the U.S. are usually part-time employees (they don’t get health insurance or other full-time benefits from their job) who get such low salaries that it’s not enough to be considered a living wage. ADECE has a program that brings pre-school teachers to people’s homes, but the documentary omits specific information about how much money it costs for Alabama to provide these home services and how many households actually get these services.

“Starting at Zero” spends a lot of time repeating things that are common knowledge, such as the fact that kids start learning before they go to school and that the type of pre-school education a child has will make a difference in how well the child does in school. The more educated a society is, the more likely the society’s economy will prosper. Therefore, it makes sense to invest in and care about a child’s education even before the child enrolls in school.

You don’t have to be an educator or a parent to know all of that, but there are several people who repeat these things throughout the film. Because this constant repetition is put in the movie, the filmmakers seem to think viewers are too stupid to understand the first time someone said it in the documentary. “Starting at Zero” makes the same mistake that a lot of documentaries make: It overstuffs the movie with talking heads who say the same things over and over.

The filmmakers of “Starting at Zero” don’t seem to understand that a documentary isn’t automatically good if you put as many interviews as possible in the documentary. In fact, interviews with too many people can make a documentary look cluttered and absolutely boring, especially if many of the people being interviewed don’t have a lot of charisma. It should be commended that the filmmakers made an effort to have numerous sources to interview, but this documentary needed better directing and editing, by putting into practice the concept of “quality over quantity” in the final cut of the movie.

Here’s the list of interviewees in “Starting at Zero,” keeping in mind that this movie is only a little more than an hour long, not a docuseries:

  • Joe Adams, research coordinator of Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama
  • Susan Adams, assistant commissioner for Pre-K, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning
  • Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO of National Association for the Education of Young Children
  • Laura Baker, regional director coordinator of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Pam Baker, Alabama First Class Pre-K teacher
  • Erin Barton, Vanderbilt Peabody College associate professor 
  • Camilla Benbow, dean of Vanderbilt Peabody College
  • Rebecca Berlin, senior vice-president of Ounce of Prevention Fund
  • Misty Blackmon, regional director of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Edwin Bridges, retired director of Alabama Department of Archives and History  
  • Steve Bullock, governor of Montana
  • Phil Bryant, former governor of Mississippi
  • Greg Canfield, Alabama secretary of commerce
  • Raj Chetty, Harvard University professor of economics
  • Lucy Cohen, HIPPY state lead of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Jeff Coleman, CEO of Coleman Worldwide Moving
  • Shernila Cook, graduate and Alabama First Class Pre-K
  • Tom Dodd, regional vice-president, Kaplan Early Learning Company
  • Steven Dow, executive director of CAP Tulsa
  • Amy Dunn, coach, Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • James Ernest, University of Alabama, Birmingham professor
  • Alice Evans, monitor of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Jean Feldman, teacher/author
  • Stacy Ferguson, retired regional director of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Dorothy Flowers, Alabama First Class Pre-K teacher
  • Delliiah Hasberry, Alabama First Class Pre-K parent/Help Me Grow Alabama community liaison
  • Jana Hoggle, Satsuma City Schools director of Pre-K
  • Jan Hume, grants and budgets of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • James B. Hunt Jr., former governor of North Carolina
  • Cynthia Jackson, executive director of Educare Learning Network
  • Laura Jana, pediatrician/author
  • Lee Johnson III, director of First 5 Alabama, Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Archie Jones, Harvard Business School director/senior lecturer
  • Todd Klunk, W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer
  • Ken Levit, executive director of George Kaiser Family Foundation
  • Sunny McPhillips, lead teacher of Alabama First Class Pre-K
  • Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of Alabama School Readiness Alliance
  • Ralph and Pamela Northam, governor and first lady of Virginia
  • Diana Mendley Rauner, president of Ounce of Prevention Fund
  • Bentley Ponder, senior director of research and policy, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning
  • Dallas Rabig, Alabama State Coordinator for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health
  • Jeana Ross, secretary of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Aaliyah Samuel, formerly of National Governor’s Association
  • Diane Schanzenbach, Northwestern University director of Institute for Policy Research
  • Javaid E. Siddiqi, president/CEO of the Hunt Institute
  • Tara Skiles, professional development manager of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Trellis Smith, Head Start state collaboration director of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Jim Squires, retired employee of National Institute for Early Education Research   
  • Katharine B. Stevens, American Enterprise Institute education policy scholar
  • Jera Stribling, director of Alabama Giving
  • Trayce Strichik, senior director, Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Rachel Wagner, Devereux Center for Resilient Children
  • Emily Warren-Bailey, Alabama First Class Pre-K teacher
  • Eria White, Alabama First Class Pre-K parent
  • Kash White, Alabama First Class Pre-K student

NOTE: Alabama governor Kay Ivey is not interviewed for the documentary, but the movie has footage of her giving a speech that mentions pre-school education.

Stylistically, “Starting at Zero” is structured like a tedious PowerPoint presentation, including having outlines on the screen that lists each of the documentary’s five chapters, with headings and subheadings. Footage of real-life pre-school classes is mostly used as anonymous background to the voiceover commentaries from the interviews. However, these visual features of the documentary aren’t the film’s biggest problem.

“Starting at Zero” might be only 63 minutes long, but it’s bloated with too many people, mainly from the South or Midwest, who repeat the same things about how “high-quality” pre-school education should be available to everyone in the U.S., without discussing the practicalities of how to pay for it. If you thought that the list of interviewees was long, imagine how it must feel to watch most of them repeating similar generic comments about education. Excruciating.

Most of the people interviewed are in privileged positions where they don’t have to think about how pre-school education will break their household budgets if they have children who need this type of education. A lot of people in America aren’t that lucky; pre-school education is out of their reach because they can’t afford it. Meanwhile, most pre-school educators’ salaries in the U.S. aren’t enough for a basic standard of living in the U.S.

The way that “Starting at Zero” ignores these problems and many other issues makes this documentary short-sighted at best, irresponsible at worst. If people want to see a much better documentary about pre-school education in the U.S., then watch “No Small Matter,” which takes a more comprehensive and more informative look at this important subject.

Abramorama released “Starting at Zero” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 14, 2020.

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