'Buddy' Review: Freedom's Best Friend

Heddy Honigmann invites us to virtually live with her characters and their canine companions rather than merely observing them.

V.O.F. Appel and Heddy Honigmann

The internet loves a good dog video. From golden retrievers befriending ducklings to dogs reuniting with their soldier owners, people can’t get enough of man’s best friend. The bond between humans and dogs is undisputed, but that doesn’t stop anyone being touched by heartwarming stories about our canine companions. In her latest documentary, Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann (Forever) dives into the profound connection between service dogs and the people they assist. Buddy is a simple and beautiful portrait of love and appreciation.

The film follows six service dogs and their owners through their day-to-day lives. Throughout the documentary, the working dogs assist disabilities ranging from blindness to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder with impressive vigilance and determination. The film easily compares to the recent docu-series Dogs, which premiered on Netflix last November. Both showcase the universal bond between man and dog, but Buddy takes the relationship to a more intimate level. Honigmann doesn’t need a sweeping score or eye-catching drone shots to tug at our emotions. The film’s goal isn’t to make the audience cry but instead to recognize the partnership between people with disabilities and their dogs who provide support.

One of the most eye-opening quotes in the film comes from Erna, an older woman confined to a wheelchair. After we see her poodle mix, Kaiko, help her make a cup of coffee, Erna remarks, “If I had to choose one word, this dog means freedom to me.”

Freedom is a constant theme in Buddy. We see a man struggling with PTSD relying on his dog to watch his back when he leaves his house. A young boy with Autism learns to control his anger and recognize body language through his own loyal companion. And a young woman with paralysis is able to make it downstairs with only her dog by her side. Over and over again, the audience witnesses these individuals overcoming what seems, on the surface, like insignificant tasks. Able-bodied people take for granted the simplicity of activities like going on a run or taking off socks, and this documentary shows how service dogs aide their owners in overcoming every obstacle. Without their dogs, many of these people cannot live their lives without some form of supervision. Therefore, the trust that they have in these animals is essential to their individuality.

Honigmann’s “show don’t tell” approach with Buddy proves the effectiveness of verite filmmaking. While interviews are helpful and easily move a story along, the benefits of having a visual representation of what these dogs are doing for their owners is irreplaceable. The film is comprised of long, meaningful shots of the pairs co-existing with each other, which allows us to breathe in every scene. Living with these characters rather than just observing them. Honigmann doesn’t want the audience to be a “fly on the wall,” so instead she immerses us in the day-to-day realities of living with a disability. Only after understanding what that life feels like, can you really grasp the gravity of the relationships these people have with their dogs.

Dylan is a Chicago local with a love of documentary filmmaking, television, and her pet rabbit, Paul. When she's not working at her full-time job at tastytrade.com, you can find her cooking for friends or discussing the brilliance of The Fast and Furious franchise.