Movie of the Week: FREE PUPPIES!

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“Adopt, don’t shop.” It’s a pet-rescue mantra we’ve probably all heard, and it comes to vivid life in Christina Thomas and Samantha Wishman’s poignant, informative documentary (or should that be “dogumentary”?) Free Puppies! As they follow a group of tireless volunteers who work on many fronts to help control the prolific pet population in largely unregulated Southern states, the co-directors shine an empathetic light on both the animals and those who want to help them find happy forever homes.

The film explains why thousands of dogs and puppies end up making their way north from states like Georgia to be adopted each year. Largely, it’s the result of far looser (or, frankly, non-existent) controls around spaying and neutering domestic animals in much of the south. But even pet owners who might be on board can be deterred by lack of access to affordable options. So dedicated folks like Monda Wooten, Ann Brown, and Ruth Smith spend all of their spare time helping people get their dogs fixed, making sure the animals are treated by vets, and working to get surplus puppies and dogs adopted — sometimes nearby, but often out of state.

Free Puppies! could easily have fallen into the trap of condescension and Southern stereotype, but instead it offers a nuanced look at a complicated situation. (That said, it’s difficult not to wince when Monda tells a male dog that he’s going in for a “sex change” when she takes him to get neutered.) And it shows how offering practical, accessible solutions to people who are short on time and money can make a huge difference. The creative ways the volunteers find to help both the animals and the people who don’t quite know what to do with them are impressive.

And then there are the dogs themselves. Free Puppies! is bursting with appealing canine co-stars, from tiny puppies to veteran hounds. You can completely understand why their plight has captured the hearts of so many humans, and you’ll be hard pressed not to tear up a time or two when their backstories are shared — or when they’re matched with eager adoptive families. It’s dog-gone touching. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Loren King Free Puppies! is a cute title but this is a heart wrenching and urgent film that deserves the widest audience possible. Co-directors Samantha Wishman and Christina Thomas deliver an engaging and inspiring look at a group of unsung heroes: volunteers who, despite the odds and the overwhelming need, rescue neglected, abandoned and mistreated dogs throughout rural areas of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Wonder why so many rescue dogs come from the South? Monda Wooten, Ruth Smith, Ann Brown and other dedicated volunteers explain that the already lax laws regarding dogs are unenforced. We see them respond to crisis calls all over rural, impoverished sections of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee to rescue flea-infested puppies left in boxes along the road and dogs running wild in filthy overgrown lots. It’s heartening to see, thanks to their efforts, shipments of rescued dogs arriving in the North to be, hopefully, adopted. But the film’s story is both an important public service and cautionary note. Until behaviors and laws change, the cycle is constantly repeated. Despite the daunting task, these spirited volunteers soldier on and deserve to be heralded for their service.

Nell Minow: These women are the real-life Paw Patrol, tirelessly and fearlessly caring for animals. It’s also the story of culture and community, confirming some stereotypes about the rural South perhaps but shattering others. The kindness the rescue teams show to the people as well as the dogs is very moving.

Susan Wloszczyna: If you love furry creatures great and small, you will revel in the heart-warming documentary Free Puppies! Filmmakers Christina Thomas and Samantha Washman focus on how rural counties in Georgia-Alabama-Tennessee tristate area overflow with dogs, mostly because these Southern regions don’t have the cash, the laws and structure in place to protect these precious animals that often are often are over-bred to the point of endangering their health. Read full review.

Pam Grady: Prepare to say, “Awww!” A lot. Dogs of all shapes and sizes and the occasional cat appear in this documentary focused on the pet rescue to adoption pipeline. Animals lovers will be charmed at the constant parade of furry, four-footed friends and simultaneously outraged. Directors Christina Thomas and Samantha Wishman cast a light on the conditions facing animals in the Deep South where spaying and neutering pets is not common, where most shelters still practice euthanasia in the face of overwhelming numbers of stray and abandoned animals, and where simply leaving a dog at the side of the road is not an unusual occurrence. Against this bleak backdrop are those who fight on a daily basis to improve the lives of animals – rescuers that take in dogs and arrange to ship them to urban areas up north for adoption, volunteers that work with impoverished pet owners to make their animals lives easier, veterinary clinics that offer low-cost spaying and neutering, and shelters doing what they can for the animals entrusted into their care. The tide is slowly turning in favor of canines and felines in the South and this entertaining documentary highlights the people making those necessary changes possible.

Leslie Combemale Committed women are working both in front of and behind the camera in the documentary Free Puppies!, From the rescue volunteers and advocates, to the directors, who also produced and edited the film, they are all in. That is definitely inspiring to viewers. It’s interesting, also, given the current political climate, that two of the main subjects featured come from completely different ideologies. What brings them together is their compassion and love of animals. The title is a bit of a bait and switch, but for good reason. As an animal lover myself, I was drawn in by the potential of seeing puppies, but there was much more of a focus on the dangers for stray and abandoned dogs in the South. For those who have a soft spot for creatures that can’t help themselves, Free Puppies! offers a valuable education about the challenges to “man’s best friend” largely brought about by man.

Jennifer Merin Free Puppies!, filmmakers Christina Thomas and Samantha Wishman’s documentary, is alternatively charming and alarming, and always compelling, as it follows dog rescuers throughout rural counties in the Georgia-Alabama-Tennessee tristate area. Volunteers Monda Wooten, Ruth Smith, Ann Brown and others work tirelessly to alleviate the overpopulation of unwanted dogs across the United States, but primarily in the South where pet laws are light and most often unenforced. It’s not uncommon to see boxes with newborn litters left as litter by the side of the road. The network of women who strive to educate the public and to find good homes for homeless dogs are absolutely heroic, the unwanted dogs they rescue might well become some women’s best friends. Maybe even you!

Sandie Angulo Chen: Filmmakers Christina Thomas and Samantha Wishman’s documentary Free Puppies! is a warm-hearted look at the important but disturbing work that dog rescuers do, traveling throughout rural parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to help spay, neuter, and save the overpopulation of stray or neglected dogs. The film focuses on volunteers Monda Wooten, Ruth Smith, Ann Brown, as well as expert veterans and animal-rescue nonprofit workers who applaud their work. It’s not always easy to watch, but the women, and the filmmakers, are empathetic about the reasons some people have (usually financial, but also due to mental illness) not to spay and neuter their dogs. A sequence with Vietnam Veteran brothers who live in the backwoods with dozens of dogs is particularly sad. While this isn’t a groundbreaking documentary about the topic of dog rescuers, it’s touching and inspiring – those of us with (or who love) dogs can do our part to make sure these small, grassroots organizations have the resources they need to keep saving and transporting puppies.

Liz Whittemore Free Puppies! is an eye-opening doc. We meet Monda Wooten, Ruth Smith, and Ann Brown, three kind-hearted women taking up the rescue mantle on their own dime and time in an attempt to tackle the overpopulation of dogs in the rural Georgia-Alabama-Tennessee tristate area. With lax breeding laws in the South, the dogs being shipped North are predominantly purebred, often leaving mixed breed puppies to the socio-economically underprivileged. Many dogs are abused, neglected, or abandoned at underfunded shelters. Free Puppies! is a candid look at a cultural division in education, means, and politics that impact the lives of these darling animals. Here’s hoping that filmmakers Christina Thomas and Samantha Wishman’s work reaches the hearts and minds of viewers as deeply as it did mine.

Cate Marquis Free Puppies! sets out to explore the reasons behind the trend to ship homeless dogs in the South up North where they have a better chance to be adopted, but the documentary turns into a surprising charmer focused on three likable, determined Southern women separately working to rescue dogs in poor areas of the rural South. These upbeat women volunteers go out to rescue dogs (and a few cats), getting them veterinary treatment, arranging spay/neuter services, then finding them new homes or helping organizations that transport them to the North. They are moved by their natural kindness and the knowledge that in the South, there are fewer regulations and less enforcement of animal welfare laws. In these poor rural areas, fewer people spay or neuter, and it is common to see signs reading “free puppies” on boxes of unwanted pups on the side of the road, see unwanted dogs are dropped off at the edge of rural properties or neglected dogs are chained up in yards. Yet while this documentary does not shy away from the facts, the warmth and kindness of these three dog-loving women answering calls to rescue dogs is irresistibly heartwarming and hopeful – a real case of puppy love.


Title: Free Puppies!

Directors: Christina Thomas and Samantha Wishman

Release Date: August 12, 2022

Running Time: 71 minutes

Language: Eng;ish

Screenwriter: documentary

Distribution Company: First Run Features

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

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Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).