“Wildcat” is the kind of emotionally manipulative documentary I find irritating. It’s this year’s answer to the Oscar-winning 2020 film “My Octopus Teacher,” a movie that, like this one, resembled an unholy merging of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and an episode of “Dr. Phil.”
Yes, every movie is manipulative, and even documentaries have a point of view filtered through the filmmaker’s gaze. But a good film of this type compels (or distracts) the viewer enough that they never notice its mechanics.
In “Wildcat,” you can see every gear turning and sense the emotional dishonesty of the filmmakers in scenes that feel exploitative. “Wildcat” is so neatly constructed into three acts by directors Trevor Beck Frost and Melissa Lesh that it plays like a fiction movie. It’s as predictable as one, too, with its syrupy music ensuring us that everything will be all right.
Pitched as a documentary on the healing power of nature, “Wildcat” never shakes the fact that it is about two white folks in the Peruvian Amazon who need something stronger than Mother Nature to heal them. Five hours from the nearest town, they find purpose in rescuing wildlife.
Unfortunately, the ocelot of the title is less like a therapy animal and more like a MacGuffin.
We are introduced to Harry Turner, a young British veteran of the War in Afghanistan. Medically discharged with PTSD and recurring depression, Harry leaves England to find solace in an area he calls “one of the most dangerous places in the world.” The idea of escaping civilization by moving to some obscure location inhabited by brown people is a colonialist notion that courts derision — isn’t their civilization just as important to them as England is to Harry? Frost and Lesh only strengthen my argument by editing a visit from Harry’s family as if they were on safari.
Even more blatant is the symbolism between Harry and the two orphaned ocelots he fosters. They’re all creatures who need to be retrained before returning to their natural habitats. “We’re wild animals, me and you!” Harry tells Khan, his first ocelot, in case that message somehow escapes the viewer.
Khan suffers a tragic fate early in “Wildcat.” A few weeks before Harry and his conservationist companion Samantha Zwicker are set to release him into the wild, Khan is killed by a gun rigged as a booby trap. Since he’d channeled so much of his energy into bonding with and training the ocelot, Harry is understandably upset. His reaction worries us — is he putting too much importance on these animals?
When Keanu, the second ocelot, is rescued, Harry has a new project to give him hope. Yet the film keeps us on edge about Harry’s mental well-being in multiple scenes of him being triggered or performing self-harm. These scenes feel intrusive, as if the filmmakers were standing back and recording them to post on the Internet later.
We are also aware that, in order to survive in the wild, Keanu will eventually need to be separated from his human handlers. By his own admission, this may cause Harry distress. Samantha’s PhD program takes her back to the States for long periods, leaving Harry without a human point of stability. “Wildcat” generates an icky, unwelcome suspense from these potential trouble spots.
Samantha has her own demons. In addition to looking after Harry and being in a romantic relationship with him that the film coyly hides for almost an hour, she must deal with the repercussions of a childhood scarred by an alcoholic father. She appears to be more self-aware of her issues; as her relationship with Harry turns toxic, she recognizes what’s happening and even tries to get advice for dealing with his depression. The resulting arguments are scary, and again, “Wildcat” uses them in manipulative fashion.
Meanwhile, Keanu does what an ocelot does. Harry tries to teach him to hunt and, when the time comes for separation, tries to scare him away so that he can stay in the wild and fend for himself. “Wildcat” hopes you’ll bring the “Aw, look at the KITTY!” factor to these scenes.
I’m a lion person myself, so Keanu did nothing for me in the cuteness department. I was too busy worrying about his human partners to engage in his story. After 100 minutes of tension, “Wildcat” imposes a happy ending that may be true but felt exceptionally false after what it puts the viewer through.
Directed by Trevor Beck Frost and Melissa Lesh. Starring Harry Turner, Samantha Zwicker, Khan and Keanu. 106 minutes. On Amazon Prime. R (profanity, animal death, intense psychological situations)
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Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.