The stars of the Amazon Studios documentary Wildcat are a man, a woman and an orphaned baby jungle cat they live with in a rainforest in Peru. The subject of this first feature from a filmmaking couple based in Virginia is something more: how to survive psychological damage and suicidal depression to find peace and a place in the world.
One half of the duo that made Wildcat, Melissa Lesh, wondered about the reception for a film that sounds easy to root for at first pass— because who doesn’t love people taking care of kittens? — and then digs into difficult topics including mental illness, despair and self harm.
“It’s scary to put something like this out in the world and not know how it will land,” Lesh said at Deadline’s Contenders Documentary event, alongside her partner and fellow Wildcat director-producer, Trevor Beck Frost.
Wildcat follows a scarred British war veteran, Harry Turner, and an American wildlife biologist, Samantha Zwicker, who are living in a remote Amazon rainforest in Peru and raising abandoned ocelots — spotted, leopard-like jungle cats — which they hope to re-release into the wilderness. Part love story, part essay on nature, Wildcat also is a portrait of an ex-soldier’s battered psyche, rendered with an intimacy born of the film’s isolated surroundings.
The early returns are encouraging. Wildcat premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September with an original song written by Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. It won audience favorite awards at festivals in New Jersey and Indiana and earned thunderous ovations in November at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
Frost was a photojournalist when he met Turner four years ago in Peru and realized there was a story in this young Briton, covered in tattoos, living almost off the grid after tours of duty in Afghanistan and a discharge diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Turner “was still trying to figure out how he was going to move forward with his life,” Frost said.
Even so, “I don’t think that either one of us expected for it to be the journey that it ended up being,” he said of himself and Lesh.
The film tracks relationship stresses between Turner and Zwicker and, in the film’s central storyline, Turner’s frustrations in caring for a baby ocelot — named Keanu — and preparing it for reintroduction into the wild.
The filmmakers never appear on camera, but they lived and worked in close quarters with their subjects, often for weeks at a stretch.
“We all became this family together,” Lesh said. “They shared so much of themselves with us, as we did with them. It’s a huge responsibility, and the last thing we would want this film to do is cause harm.”
He added: “And so far, seeing it out in the world and seeing the breadth of people that are coming up to us, and how it’s resonating with different people, it feels really amazing. It feels like maybe we did kind of thread those needles well.”
Wildcat opens with a limited theatrical release on December 21 and moves to Prime Video on December 30.
Check out the panel video above.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.