This affecting new documentary follows a young combat veteran's attempts to rewild an ocelot in the Peruvian Amazon.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This isn’t your kid’s Disney nature documentary.

Nothing against that genre: I enjoy watching cute cavorting penguins or monkeys, accompanied by perky music. But Wildcat is something better, something deeper. In this excellent documentary by first-time feature directors Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh, the stakes are higher. Survival of the eponymous ocelot isn’t guaranteed, and the inner turmoil of its caretakers runs deep.

Adopting a gecko on the wall perspective, Wildcat takes place at Hoja Nueva, a barebones conservation and rewilding facility deep in the Peruvian Amazon. (Deep, as in the nearest town is five hours away.) The center was created by Samantha Zwicker, a PhD candidate from the Pacific Northwest.

The film begins in earnest with the arrival of Harry Turner, a 25-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan. We don’t learn how Turner connected with Hoja Nueva, no doubt in the service of pacing and brevity. After a medical discharge due to depression and PTSD, Harry struggled immensely with his return to British civilian life.

Wildcat is a mature film…optimistic in overall tone.

At the Peruvian center, the animals rewilded have been displaced by human activity in the rainforest, mostly mining or illegal logging. After loggers deposit a pair of ocelot kittens at Hoja Nueva, Harry is tasked with their care. Wildcat focuses mostly on his efforts with the second ocelot, Keanu.

Raising an ocelot to be released back into the rainforest is no simple task. Hard enough that if Harry succeeds, it will be a conservation first. It’s a 17-month process, the same amount of time a mother ocelot spends with her offspring.

Wildcat chooses a chronological approach to depict these efforts, jumping ahead a few months periodically. Kitten Keanu is utterly adorable, purring like a domesticated cat, requiring bottle feeding. Harry is patient, as he trains him to hunt with increasing independence.

The threats facing Keanu are manifold: hunters’ traps, poisonous prey, and other carnivores (including adult ocelots). Meanwhile, Harry navigates his own perils. He suffers rapid mood swings and urges to self-harm. He fends off tropical illnesses, homesickness, and loneliness.

Near the start of Wildcat, Samantha informs us that even professional researchers can’t always cope with the strains of the rainforest, leaving before their tour of duty has ended. And the documentary’s co-directors themselves fought through physical and mental illness to complete their film.

At an indefinable point in Wildcat, Harry and Samantha segue from close friends into lovers. They bravely allow the camera to roll during their best and worst moments. We understand how Harry is looking for rescue from his emotional distress, with the aid of Samantha and Keanu. We learn similarly that Samantha has deep-seated tendencies to sacrifice herself to fix broken things.

As a viewer twice their age, I’m impressed by how so very young they are. Despite a body covered with grownup tattoos, Harry is close enough to adolescence that he still has acne. (Once again, I feel outrage at nations sending children to fight wars started by old leaders with no skin in the game.) And Samantha is a student, precociously striving to save our planet.

Wildcat is likewise a mature film. There’s abundant footage of tropical wildlife in their gorgeous, intimidating rainforest setting, sufficient to make nature documentary junkies swoon. But the film doesn’t shy away from showing both the inner tumult that fuels caregivers in their vocation, and the truth of the cliché, that no matter where you go, there you are.

If heavy in places, Wildcat is optimistic in overall tone. It’s a satisfying, uplifting start to a new year of movie viewing.

(Wildcat started a limited theatrical run on December 21st and is now streaming on Prime Video.)

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