In one of the most emotionally fueled documentaries you’re likely to see this year, Wildcat tracks the story of Harry Turner, a young British veteran of the war in Afghanistan who struggles with PTSD and depression and has since fled the UK to the jungles of the Peruvian Amazon. Shortly after he arrives, he meets an American woman named Samantha Zwicker running a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center, and as the two fall in love, Harry begins to learn the finer points of not just saving wild animals from death but getting them to a place where they can be reintroduced into society. The parallels between these animals and Harry are not lost on him or us, since the former soldier is dealing with rage issues and emotional swings that he believes make it impossible for him to return home as well.
The first animal Harry is in charge of taking care of is a young ocelot named Kahn, whom he cares for and also teaches to hunt for its own food, as part of what is meant to be an 18-month process. But when Khan is killed by a hunting trap, Harry is devastated and can barely get out of bed for several weeks. When Samantha finally coaxes him back to work, another ocelot comes into their facility, and Harry is determined to get this one right. The problem is, every time something goes wrong or seems to be going too slowly, Harry gets depressive and begins cutting himself and having major crying episodes that send him and Samantha into a terrible funk. Wildcat chronicles not only the ocelot’s rehab but Harry’s journey to healing as well, living alone in the jungle (Samantha is still technically a graduate student, so she must travel back and forth between Peru and Seattle to raise funds and write up updates on her progress and research).
At one point, Harry’s family (his parents and younger brother) come visit him, and it’s clear they are not prepared for what they find, both in terms of the incredible work being done and Harry’s fragile condition. He’s a heavily tattooed tough guy on the outside, but it barely covers the self-destructive mess he is on the inside. The visit is one of the high points in the story and seems to give Harry the needed boost to finish his work. However, things between him and Samantha take a turn for the worse as well, especially when the time comes for Harry to start distancing himself from his ocelot in the final stages of putting it back into the wild. The way he sees it, if he fails at properly setting up the animals for living in the wild, then he’s a failure and shouldn’t be allowed to function in society either.
What first-time feature filmmakers Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost capture is often extraordinary, especially since it feels like everything in this jungle is dangerous to varying degrees. A great deal of the footage is also shot by Harry or by static cameras he sets up to capture any activity around his base camp, and there is plenty to capture; it just makes the entire experience so real and exhilarating. It’s hard not to watch Harry’s journey and not wonder if a good therapist might go a long way toward helping him recover, especially when we find out Samantha’s troubling back story involving an alcoholic, abusive father whom her mother thought she could fix as well.
Wildcat is a moving story of love and discovery that takes us unexpected places and has a very adorable cat at its center, which is always a plus. Harry’s struggles are sometimes difficult to watch, and not always in the way the filmmakers likely intended. He can be unusually cruel when his mood shifts, and he takes it out verbally on Samantha more often than I would have liked to see. Maybe that’s the point, but there were times when I was more concerned about waiting for her to get out and have a better life than I was Harry or the wildlife. Still, the film is captivating and quite the adventure to boot.
The film is now streaming on Prime Video.
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