Reporting from the 2022 Telluride Film Festival.
Young Harry Turner left Britain for the battlefields of Afghanistan and came back a troubled man. The things he saw there—the fate of one little girl, in particular—marked Harry so deeply that it’s gonna take an ocean of love to heal his soul. Battling post-traumatic stress and bouts of crippling depression, Harry leaves his family behind and heads for the Peruvian jungle. Conservation is the name of the game, and the project’s lead, Samantha Zwicker—also Harry’s love interest—is in charge of rescuing animals displaced by illegal logging and ranching in the Amazon, to say nothing of the threat of poachers.
Here Harry meets Khan, a small ocelot with a gorgeous pumpkin-colored coat covered in ink-black splotches. He’s a bit bigger than your typical house cat, but not that much bigger. Though I suspect ocelot claws dig a bit deeper into Harry’s shoulder when they play than when I pick up my 12-year-old American shorthair. Her name is Vivian, and we have her nails clipped every time she goes to the vet. I doubt Harry has that pleasure.
Harry’s job is to prepare Khan for the wild. That means teaching him to pounce to hunt and to stay safe from traps. As Werner Herzog discovered all those years ago, there is no harmony in the jungle, only obscenity. On one level, you can see why Harry might be attracted to such a setting. On another, you can’t help but wonder if he pulled himself out of the frying pan only to fling himself into the fire. Ditto for Samantha: She cares deeply for Harry, but another relationship from her past might be too much for them to overcome.
Directed by Trevor Beck Frost and Melissa Lesh, Wildcat is a sweet movie with a happy ending and all the depth of a car decal. You know the one, it’s in the shape of an animal’s paw and the question: “Who rescued who?” That might seem like a mean swipe at an otherwise genuine doc, but two questions go unanswered in Wildcat: 1) When did the directors learn of Harry and Samantha’s story and decide to make a documentary about them? And 2) What about the story compelled them to join Harry and Samantha in the jungle?
Frost and Lesh answered that question, more or less, in post-screening comments at the Telluride Film Festival. Frost spoke of his struggle with depression and how he has learned to treat it not as a handicap but as a different way of viewing the world. I like that sentiment; I just wish it was in the movie. Same for Frost and Lesh’s presence. Wildcat is told primarily as a cinematic diary, with Harry and Samantha documenting their work in the jungle via small cameras and phones. But then there are shots that could only be taken by someone else. From whom do we gain this vantage? Is it Frost or Lesh? If they are out here, living in the jungle, aren’t they part of this story too?
I would guess Frost and Lesh didn’t want to distract from Harry and Samantha’s story and so stayed off camera. That’s their choice, though I can’t help but wonder if pulling back the curtain wouldn’t have brought more dimension to a tale that looks personal at first blush but feels superficial the more you sit with it. But maybe I’m being too harsh. I have a cat, and, like Harry, her sheer presence makes things feel okay when I know they’re not. Maybe that’s enough.
Wildcat will be released by Amazon Studios later this year.