Stream it or skip it?
Wild cat (now on Amazon Prime Video) is a documentary pitting adorable wild animals in the Amazon against one man’s mental health issues. The former, particularly cute as orphaned kittens in need of a boost, may be just as necessary to the health of the latter, a traumatized military veteran seeking escape and healing. Directors Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh capture the intensely loving, yet necessarily brief, relationship between Harry the human and Keanu the ocelot, for a classic story that saves who man meets animal.
WILD CAT: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The essential: “We are wild animals, you and me. We are wild. Harry sees himself a lot in the ocelot he raises in the Peruvian Amazon. The cat was orphaned and picked up by loggers likely to sell it on the black market before an environmental group intervened to save it; now he needs to be fed for 18 months before he can be released back into the jungle to fend for himself. Seven years prior, British-born Harry was an 18-year-old soldier in Afghanistan before being discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder and burn scars on his arms. he attempted suicide before deciding he needed to get away from it all and settled in the jungle. The parallel between man and cat is obvious – both must prepare for the freedoms of their respective worlds.
Harry often films himself taking the ocelot for nighttime « walks » in the jungle, learning not-a-kitten-but-not-yet-a-cat how to hunt rodents and small caimans. Frost and Lesh provide many of the nuts and bolts of the documentary, mixing in third-person footage and filling in some narrative holes. Harry’s cat rehabilitation project is overseen by Samantha, a graduate student who runs the nonprofit Hoja Nueva, dedicated to animal rehabilitation and the preservation of rainforest acreage. We eventually learn that their partnership is also romantic. Harry talks about his family in England, in particular his great affection for his 13-year-old brother; they will brave the kilometers and the dense and treacherous jungle to visit. Samantha has to return to Seattle more often than she would like to continue her studies and raise funds for Hoja Nueva; she talks about her late father, whose alcoholism made him tough and abusive at night, but tender and loving the next morning.
We get an intense portrait of the connection between man and animal as Harry does the lion’s share of « mothering » an ocelot he and Samantha affectionately named Keanu. (Disappointingly, the filmmakers never ask the couple if they’re Breaking pointers, John WickWhere My own private Idahoers.) To our untrained eye, Harry seems well-suited to raising ocelot kittens, balancing the tender and tough love of a wild-yet-dependent cat like Keanu needs. Not that it’s easy – a large territorial male lurks nearby; a spider bite makes Keanu sick overnight; a hard lesson is learned when the cat attacks a caiman that’s a bit too big and way too fast. In the final months before Keanu’s release, Harry frets and worries during the cat’s first night alone in the jungle outside his enclosure. The bond must inevitably be severed, and Harry, trying to drive the cat away, growls and lashes out violently. The common thread running through all these incidents: is Harry’s psychological well-being too intrinsically tied to the cat’s health and progress? Harry frequently slips into a deep, dark depression, and he still has the ability to self-harm. This greatly accentuates his relationship with Samantha. « I’m in the most beautiful place in the world, » laments Harry, « and I can’t be happy. »
What movies will this remind you of? : Wild cat draws a close parallel to the 2021 Oscar-winning documentary My octopus teacherin which a wildlife filmmaker chronicles the life of an octopus as a way to deal with his depression.
Performance to watch: Not to discount the very real and empathetic pain of the humans in the photo, but one crucial element gives the heavy subject matter some needed moments of levity: frequent images of an ocelot kitten romping and nipping.
Memorable dialogue: Harry feels the frustration of all parents when he begs Keanu: “Just. Eat. Your rodent!
Sex and skin: None.
Our opinion : The more Harry and Keanu’s story progresses, the more fragile it becomes. Harry thinks the only way to ease the pain of his panic attacks is to cut himself. We see surprisingly intimate footage of Harry and Samantha arguing heatedly as their relationship appears to be reaching its final throes. She doesn’t know if she should help him or leave him, and she admits that her difficult relationship with her father is clouding her decision. Harry knows he has no choice but to say goodbye forever to Keanu, the thing he loves the most, because that’s what’s best for the cat. And it will let Keanu run free in one of the world’s most brutal natural environments. There is no guarantee for humans or cats.
Wisely, Frost and Lesh take a step back and let their film raise questions without judgment. Is Harry’s situation and behavior a definite negative, or are we witnessing the pains of progress? (It’s sometimes comforting to know that Harry wasn’t always alone in the jungle – someone has to be there to direct the camera, although the filmmakers never insert themselves directly into the narrative.) Whatever it is on its own, the film captures the messy truth about Harry – and perhaps sanity in general – which may be unsatisfying for anyone looking for a documentary with a polished conclusion, but one that is nonetheless honest and moving. Wild cat talks about the capricious nature of happiness, and this is where the wild animal metaphor finally breaks down – happiness comes and goes, but unlike a cunning ocelot, it will come back.
Our call: SPREAD IT. Even though Wild cat asserts that there are no easy solutions to Harry’s problems, it is nonetheless a raw and beautiful portrayal of a man and his ability to love a cat in desperate need of it.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Learn more about his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.