On its exotic surface, Wildcat may have all the trappings of a standard conservation documentary, but beneath the lavishly photographed camouflage lurks a tenderly moving, deeply empathetic human survival story that deals as much with emotional trauma as with physical.
At face value, there’s no shortage of Disneynature-style allure in the touching bond between Keanu, a one-month-old orphaned ocelot kitten, and Harry Turner, a British Army vet who has 17 months to care for the kitten and teach it how to take care of itself before being released back into the Peruvian Amazon.
But rehabilitation is proving to be a two-way street — when he returned from a six-month deployment in Afghanistan seven years earlier, Turner, who has about as many tattoos as Keanu Pickel, was struggling with PTSD and severe recurrent depression.
After attempting suicide, he decided to pack up and “go where no one knows my name,” but instead of disappearing permanently into the jungle, he would find meaning at Hoja Nueva (“New Leaf”), a dedicated nonprofit organization for Raising and reintroducing rescue tools that would likely have been snatched up from the black market.
Also contributing to Turner’s personal healing is the comforting presence of Hoja Nueva founder Samantha Zwicker, a University of Washington graduate student who, as the daughter of an abusive alcoholic father, knows all too well how to manage Harry’s emotionally fragile flare-ups.
As presented by filmmakers Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, this deep well of collective trauma is captured with the same poignant sensitivity as the nurturing encounters between Harry and Keanu, and again during a first visit to the rainforest by Harry’s parents and younger brother longer separation.
Frost, himself no stranger to depression, had stumbled across Turner and Zwicker’s story after originally traveling to the Peruvian Amazon to document the elusive anaconda, but finding nothing after a 40-day search for the creature.
Inspired by previous conservation-themed documentaries such as 2014’s Virunga, set in eastern Congo, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and Brett Morgan’s 2017 profile, Jane Goodall’s Jane Inspiring Frost and Lesh along with Turner also did the beautiful cinematography.
Everything is set in an immersive soundscape, accented by a gentle score by ‘Virunga’ composer Patrick Jonsson, who has the reluctance to back down when Keanu’s time finally comes after being taught how to chant his searches for his own food while dodging the paralyzing bite of the Brazilian wandering spider to finally start his own business.
While the farewell pretty much guarantees there won’t be a dry eye in the house or home (the film is streaming on Amazon Prime Video a week after a limited theatrical run), there’s hope Keanu will make it out alive and well , especially when he is briefly spotted by a jungle camera a few months later.
Though Turner’s final rehab prognosis seems tenuous, “Wildcat” delivers its life-affirming, coming-of-age message with no onerous strings attached.
Rated: R, for language
Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes
To play: Begins December 21, Laemmle Royal, Los Angeles; The Culver Theatre, Culver City; Available December 30th on Amazon Prime Video
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-12-20/review-wildcat-documentary-nature-ocelot-amazon Wildcat Review: A deeply moving survival story