Producers: Melissa Lesh, Trevor Beck Frost, Alysa Nahmias and Joshua Altman Directors: Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost Cast: Harry Turner and Samantha Zwicker Distributor: Prime Video
The idea of rescue lies at the heart of this documentary, in which two young people, a wildlife activist and a troubled veteran, find personal redemption working at a rehabilitation shelter for threatened animals in Peruvian Amazonia. While structurally somewhat ragged, it not only will engage lovers of big cats, but proves a compelling story of damaged humans who help one another as well as the animals they care for. In fact, despite a good deal of footage of young ocelots gamboling in the forest, it’s the latter element that dominates.
Harry Turner is a British soldier whose devastating tour in Afghanistan leaves him shattered and potentially suicidal. Wanting to spare his family, particularly younger brother Jayden, who idolizes him, the trauma of dealing with his plans, he travels to Peru, where he volunteers at the camp where Samantha Zwicker, an American PhD student, is doing research for her thesis on wildlife conservation efforts.
Turner returns to his family, parents Mark and Collette and brother Jayden, after witnessing the death of an innocent child and being haunted by it. Suffering from PTSD and depression, he finds it impossible to reintegrate into society and flees to Peru intending to disappear. But his encounter with Samantha and the locals with whom she works encourages him to join their work, and a romance with Zwicker emerges. We learn that her background bolsters a desire to help him deal with his mercurial mood swings: her father was an alcoholic, who veered from kindness to abuse every day.
And so she entrusts Harry with the care of an orphaned ocelot kitten he and she name Khan, which he raises like a proud parent, looming forward to the time a year and a half later when the cub, taught gradually to fend for itself, can be released back into the wild. Unfortunately, after months of successful training, Khan is injured by a shotgun blast fired from a trap set by poachers, and does not survive. Harry is inconsolable, and his condition deteriorates. Zwicker is understandably concerned about his ability to deal with the loss.
But the arrival of another kitten gives him a second chance. This one, Keanu, is raised in a more remote area, less endangered by poachers and loggers. And coaxed by Turner, it not only grows larger but increasingly independent—a double-edged victory, of course—and eventually is encouraged to leave the security of the camp and be fully integrated into the wilderness. Meanwhile Harry is visited by his family in what proves to be a joyous reunion, while Samantha returns to Seattle to complete her thesis work and reconnect with friends and family.
In one respect the story seems a complete success: footage taken months later catches a glimpse of Keanu, apparently happy in his new environment. Harry and Samantha, however, may not be the couple those raised on rom-com happy endings might wish.
You can raise a few quibbles about “Wildcat.” The locals with whom Samantha and Harry work are given short shrift, kept largely in the background, their contributions barely mentioned, while the focus remains on them. Yet that allows the film to explore their psyches with an acuity that’s at times positively painful, especially in Tucker’s case. His despair at certain points is almost unbearable to watch. Her need to come to terms with her childhood experience, on the other hand, is made palpable not only by her recollections but by the home movies she shares; nonetheless it simmers at a lower heat. The difference is also conveyed in the material dealing with their respective family reunions: hers is relatively low-key, his—especially with his brother, who loves the wildlife as much as he does—is exultant. The ups and downs in the romance between the two is also tenderly caught.
Which brings us to the real heart of the film, the footage that captures not only captures their relationship with the animals they’re striving to protect and prepare for reintroduction to the wild—especially Harry’s with Khan and Keanu, which, shot by Turner himself, is sometimes quite amazing—but the intimate moments between humans as well. One sometimes gets hints that this material, filmed by producers Trevor Beck Frost and Melissa Lesh and edited by Lesh, Joshua Altman, David Zieff and Gen Gold, has been prepared rather than shot simply on the fly, but one can understand why the subjects might not have wanted some details shown. The score by Patrick Jonsson is supportive rather than distracting.
So what one has in “Wildlife” is a documentary about how a connection between threatened animals and those caring from them can be therapeutic on both sides. Watching it may be therapeutic for viewers, too.