Wildcat (now available on Amazon Prime Video) is a documentary that contrasts charming Amazonian wild creatures with the mental health issues of one guy. The former, namely adorable orphan ocelot kittens in need of a helping hand, may be as vital to the health of the latter, a traumatized military veteran seeking retreat and recovery, as the former. For a classic who’s-rescuing-whom man-meets-animal tale, directors Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh portray the extremely affectionate but necessarily fleeting bond between Harry the human and Keanu the ocelot.
WILDCAT: TO STREAM OR NOT TO STREAM?
The Essence: “We are both wild creatures. We are insane.” Harry identifies with the ocelot he is raising in the Peruvian Amazon. The cat was orphaned and seized by loggers who intended to sell it on the black market before a conservationist group intervened; it now requires 18 months of foster care before it can be returned into the forest. Seven years ago, Harry, a British-born 18-year-old soldier in Afghanistan, was discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder and burn scars on his arms; he tried suicide before deciding he needed to get away from everything and settling in the jungle. Both humans and cats must prepare for the freedoms of their separate worlds, thus the parallel between them is evident.
Harry frequently videos himself as he teaches the not-a-kitten-but-not-yet-a-cat how to hunt rodents and small caimans on late-night “walks” through the jungle with the ocelot. Frost and Lesh contribute many of the documentary’s structural elements, incorporating third-person footage and filling in narrative gaps. Samantha, a PhD student who manages the non-profit Hoja Nueva, is in charge of Harry’s cat rehabilitation project. Hoja Nueva is dedicated to rehabilitating cats and protecting rainforest land. Eventually, we discover that their relationship is also amorous. Harry discusses his family in England, particularly his 13-year-old brother, for whom he has a tremendous deal of affection; they will go across the ocean and through a deep, perilous forest to see. Samantha must return to Seattle more frequently than she would like to finish her studies and earn money for Hoja Nueva; she reveals that her late father’s alcoholism caused him to be cruel and abusive at night, but tender and caring in the morning.
Harry does the lion’s share of “mothering” an ocelot he and Samantha affectionately called Keanu, creating a powerful portrayal of the relationship between man and animal. (It’s disappointing that the producers never asked the pair if they were fans of Point Breakers, John Wick, or My Own Private Idaho.) Harry appears well-suited to parenting ocelot kittens, blending the caring care and strong love that a wild, but dependant cat like Keanu requires. Not that it’s easy — a large, territorial male prowls nearby; a spider bite makes Keanu sick for a night; and Keanu learns a painful lesson when the cat attacks a caiman that is too large and quick. In the months leading up to Keanu’s release, Harry frets and worries during the cat’s first night alone in the jungle, outside of its confinement. Harry attempts to frighten the cat away by growling and lashing out fiercely as he realizes that the relationship must be destroyed. All of these occurrences share a common theme: Is Harry’s mental health overly dependent on the cat’s health and development? Harry frequently falls into a profound, dark sadness, and he retains the ability to damage himself. It emphasizes his relationship with Samantha significantly. Harry complains, “I’m at the most beautiful place in the world, and I can’t f—ing be happy.”
Wildcat closely resembles the 2021 Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher, in which a nature cameraman tracked the lives of an octopus as a means of coping with his despair.
Not to downplay the very real and compassionate pain of the characters in the film, but one key element provides the weighty subject matter with appropriate moments of humor: Frequent clip of an ocelot kitten playing and biting.
Memorable Dialogue: “Just,” Harry urges Keanu, expressing the frustration of every parent. Eat. Your rodent!”
Skin and Sexuality: None.
The further Harry and Keanu’s story develops, the more vulnerable it gets. Harry believes that cutting himself is the only way to alleviate the pain of his anxiety attacks. We witness unusually intimate footage of Harry and Samantha bickering vehemently as their relationship appears to be deteriorating. She is unsure whether she should help him or leave him, and she admits that her tumultuous connection with her father clouds her judgment. Harry understands he must say goodbye forever to Keanu, his greatest love, because it is in the best interest of the cat. And he will release Keanu into one of the harshest natural places on the planet. There are no assurances for humans or felines.
Frost and Lesh use discretion by allowing their film to raise questions without passing judgment. Is Harry’s circumstance and behavior a net negative, or are we experiencing the discomforts of progress? (It’s occasionally reassuring to know that Harry wasn’t constantly alone in the jungle; someone needs to operate the camera, but the filmmakers never explicitly inject themselves into the story.) In any case, the film depicts the tangled truth of Harry – and perhaps mental health in general – that may be unsatisfying for those looking for a documentary with a neat finish, but is nonetheless sincere and moving. Wildcat is about the ephemeral nature of happiness, and this is where the wild-animal metaphor fails – happiness comes and goes, but unlike a cunning ocelot, it always returns.
Our Request: STREAM IT. Although Wildcat emphasizes that there are no simple solutions to Harry’s difficulties, it is nonetheless a memorable and alternately harsh and beautiful depiction of a man and his capacity to love a cat in great need.
John Serba is a film reviewer and freelance writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. More of his art can be seen at johnserbaatlarge.com.