“Wildcat” (2022) – In 1982, Werner Herzog released “Fitzcarraldo”, an epic adventure set in Peru. Herzog – not wanting to resort to George Lucas-style special effects – and his crew famously moved a 300-ton steamship over a hill in the Amazon rainforest. It was a Herculean task, and the event is proudly documented in cinematic history.
Forty years later, directors Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh capture another such undertaking in the Amazon. No, Samantha Zwicker and Harry Turner aren’t nudging a humongous vessel through the Peruvian wilderness. The object of their affection only weighs 32 pounds at best.
They attempt to raise orphaned ocelots to adulthood – at 18 months – and then release them into the wild. Apparently, this humanitarian enterprise has never been accomplished, but this modern-day Tarzan and Jane put their best feet forward with a grounded and nurturing approach.
Ocelots are graceful creatures who resemble small leopards. Due to their comparatively diminutive size, the two cats Samantha and Harry encounter – Khan and Keanu – appear harmless, especially due to the felines’ youthful, kitten-like charm. As encouraging as Samantha and Harry’s combined intentions are, this 106-minute documentary also exudes “don’t try this at home” vibes.
First, the wild, hazardous setting is no place for the weak, inexperienced, or pampered. The pair live in a humble but sizeable wooden structure that does protect them from rainfall and includes a plank-filled rope bridge that escorts them and the occasional human visitors to a latrine. For those audience members whose days are completely ruined when the good ol’ Wi-Fi runs too slowly, or the almond milk container in the fridge runs dry, Samantha and Harry are roughing it beyond belief.
Second, unknown animal intrusions pose larger threats. Who knows what predators exist in the Peruvian rainforest, even though our leads work in a conservation center, Hoja Nueva. Thankfully, Frost and Lesh don’t often discover brawny, sinewy creatures who could devour Khan, Keanu, or their human caretakers. Still, the danger is ever-present, as snakes, crocodiles, and other critters seem like they could slither, crawl, swim, or pounce in the camera’s frame at any moment.
So, how does one care for an ocelot kitten?
Samantha and Harry show us the way, and Frost and Lesh devote precious minutes where Khan or Keanu coo, play, and snuggle with their foster parents. Harry is particularly hands-on, and this former British military veteran – back from Afghanistan – handles these young cats with a careful, feather-like approach of a delicate guardian tending to a baby chick. Harry also offers testimonials of his combative episodes in the Middle East. By Harry reciting and displaying his PTSD, these cherished moments of human-cat support will melt away any resistance in your tear ducts. Animal lovers will be powerless to resist a stiff upper lip and probably find themselves quivering with affection and empathy while treading in pools of tears.
(On a personal note, this critic has been actively involved with animal rescue for nearly 11 years, and the aforementioned descriptions were my experiences during this movie.)
Samantha truly is a modern-day Dian Fossey, but without controversy or aggression. However, her initially rock-solid partnership with Harry shows signs of fracture. They share the same goals, but Harry’s issues from his days of combat bleed into their relationship. Samantha may be a brilliant ecologist from the University of Washington, but she’s not a qualified therapist. Unfortunately, Harry needs one. Still, his dedication to this project resonates admirably. Ms. Zwicker also shares her past through on-camera declarations, and these humans do not appear aligned for the long term.
No question, this documentary’s primary storyline – the kittens’ graduation to independent adulthood – gets a little lost from the film’s initial path. It’s more like Samantha and Harry take an unwanted detour due to his past. This emotional diversion pulls from the hopeful quest in an unpleasant way, but “Wildcat” is an actual record, and life often throws roadblocks and bypasses in front of our best-laid plans. This deviation from Samantha and Harry’s ultimate philanthropic trail adds tension to this demanding mission. Unexpectedly, this added stress creates more of an investment for the audience. If you loved the Oscar-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher” (2020), you will embrace “Wildcat” as well. Craig Foster from “My Octopus Teacher”, Samantha, and Harry reach out to accomplish astonishingly strenuous aspirations with vulnerable animal-kingdom partners. Like Werner Herzog’s efforts, their work is permanently and cinematically captured.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh
Starring: Samantha Zwicker and Harry Turner
Runtime: 106 minutes
Image credits: Amazon Studios