On its exotic surface, “Wildcat” might hold all the trappings of a standard wildlife conservation documentary, but lurking beneath the lushly photographed camouflage is a tenderly moving, deeply empathetic human survival story that has as much to do with emotional trauma as it does with the physical.
Taken at that face value, there’s no shortage of Disneynature-style captivation to be found in the touching bond between Keanu, a month-old orphaned ocelot kitten, and Harry Turner, a British Army vet who has 17 months to raise the baby cat and teach it how to fend for itself before releasing it back into the Peruvian Amazon.
But the rehabilitation turns out to be very much a two-way street — upon returning from a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan seven years earlier, Turner, who has about as many tattoos as Keanu does spots, was struggling with PTSD and severe recurrent depression.
Following a suicide attempt, he decided to pack up his things and “go where no one knows my name,” but instead of permanently disappearing into the jungle, he’d find purpose at Hoja Nueva (“New Leaf”) a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising and rewilding rescues that would have likely been snatched up by the black market.
Also greatly contributing to Turner’s personal healing is the calming presence of Hoja Nueva founder Samantha Zwicker, a University of Washington doctoral candidate who, as the daughter of an abusive alcoholic father, knows too well how to navigate around Harry’s emotionally fragile flare-ups.
As presented by filmmakers Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, that deep well of collective trauma is captured with the same affecting sensitivity as those nurturing encounters between Harry and Keanu, and again during a first-time visit to the rainforest by Harry’s parents and younger brother after an extended time apart.
Frost, himself no stranger to bouts of depression, had stumbled upon Turner and Zwicker’s story after initially traveling to the Peruvian Amazon to document the elusive anaconda, but, after a 40-day search for the creature, had come up empty.
Drawing upon such previous conservation-themed documentaries as 2014’s “Virunga,” set in eastern Congo, Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” and Brett Morgan’s “Jane,” the 2017 Jane Goodall profile, for inspiration, Frost and Lesh, who, along with Turner, also handled the gorgeous cinematography.
It’s all wrapped up in an immersive soundscape accentuated by a gentle score by “Virunga” composer Patrick Jonsson that has the restraint to pull back when the time finally comes for Keanu, having been taught how to hunt for his own food while dodging the paralyzing bite of the Brazilian wandering spider, to finally strike out on his own.
While the farewell pretty much guarantees there won’t be a dry eye in the house or home (the film streams on Amazon Prime Video one week after a limited theatrical run), one is left feeling confident that Keanu will make it out alive and well, especially when he’s briefly spotted by a jungle camera some months later.
Although Turner’s ultimate rehab prognosis would appear to be more tenuous, “Wildcat” poignantly delivers its life-affirming, coming-of-age message with no cloying strings attached.
Rated: R, for language
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 21, Laemmle Royal, Los Angeles; The Culver Theatre, Culver City; available Dec. 30 on Amazon Prime Video