Premiering at the 2022 edition of the Cannes Film Festival and dropping into U.S. theaters in the autumn, Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO was a film that challenged both our notions of the “animal movie” at large and how we assemble and contort images into tidy, digestible narratives, no matter how antithetical to the visual media itself that may be. The director took care to move away from the default anthropomorphism that so many such films are lathered in, rejecting the easy metaphors typically used to engender human empathy in viewers by appealing to their instinctive homocentrism (, and instead attempting to imagine and explore an alien umwelt, abstracting his images more and more as the film moves forward, refusing any easy thematizing in EO’s beguiling spaces. Into that sphere comes another faunal work that sneakily subverts expectations of form: Melissa Lesh and Trevor Frost’s Wildcat.
Though predictably less experimental than Skolimoswki’s film, the directorial duo’s debut effort is still a challenging work in its own right, assuming the superficial posture of an animal or nature documentary but shedding all of that subgenre’s most irksome trappings. This is especially surprising given a logline that is rich in potential for the saccharine: Harry Turner, a young British soldier back from active duty in the Middle East and suffering from PTSD, heads into the Peruvian Amazon as a kind of escape (and informed by Fawcettian notions of romantic adventure). Once there, he meets Samantha Zwicker, a young American grad student spearheading a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation effort, strikes up a relationship with her, and begins caring for an orphaned baby ocelot. But rather than entering into some canned arc of mutual salvation between man and beast, Wildcat succeeds by allowing its intimacies and conflicts and tragedies to unfurl organically. It’s a thrillingly destination-ambivalent work in its linearity, its “story” revealing itself in real-time and recalling something like Minding the Gap, where emotion is earned through the edit’s construction rather than any overriding or predetermined intent. It’s exploratory in the best and rarest sense.
No small part of this is thanks to the film’s production. Wildcat leans further into the ethics of animal science than your average film of this ilk, both discursively — those fluent in the writings of Frans de Waal and Ed Yong (and EO, for that matter) will be familiar with the documentary’s comfort in nature’s mysteries and its refusal to ascribe human agenda to animals — and in the filmmaking process, which barred Lesh and Frost from proximity to the ocelots, leaving Turner and Zwicker to capture much of the film’s footage, guide its rhetoric, and navigate the murky terrain of on-screen self-reflexivity. Again, as in Minding the Gap, this naturalism works to build a profoundly affecting emotional core, which in turn operates as a ballast for the film’s amorphousness and thesis-agnostic approach. That doesn’t mean Wildcat is without ideas: the film’s very synopsis suggests the seed of an notion about humanity’s essential cruelty, as it extends to animals, the natural world, and other people, and the filmmakers subtly but poignantly allow this to mature through the film’s edit, refusing histrionics and arch narrativization in favor of small moments of brokenness and healing, joy and despair, callousness and care, all cocktailed into a moving, deceptively vast, and, ideally, perspective-shifting study in our collective responsibility to the world, each other, and ourselves.
In a documentary film landscape ever more engineered toward biography and “essay” in form and true crime and social causes in content, a trend only further enunciated by the age of streaming we’re living through, the market has been flooded with prefab films of easy topicality, buzzword baiting, and baseline competence, most with very little visual appeal or intellectual heft to speak of.
Wildcat is a wondrous respite from such trite and calculated offerings; it even has the confidence and conceptual restraint to resist plaguing its frames with unnecessary aestheticizing or arbitrary images of Amazonian grandeur, with Lesh and Frost understanding the fundamental intimacy and modesty of their film’s foci. (Drilling down to the slightly more niche, Wildcat’s title also amusingly offers something of a middle finger to the similar minimalism employed by DisneyNature for the works they assembly line out to the public — Penguins, Elephant, Polar Bear — though the directors may not frame it as such.) True to form, then, the film ends not with pat conclusion or happy-ever-after condescension, but with the same delicateness and sensitivity that has guided its entire 100 minutes. There is no magical fix, the future remains murky and unknown. Some bonds are broken, others are formed and firmed. “I feel like I’ve done something good,” Harry states. That’s all any of us can hope for.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 2