Review: ‘Wildcat’ (2022), starring Harry Turner and Samantha Zwicker

December 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Harry Turner in “Wildcat” (Photo by Trevor Frost/Amazon Content Services)

“Wildcat” (2022)

Directed by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2018 to 2022, in Peru and England, the documentary film “Wildcat” features a group of predominantly white people (and some Latinos) from the working-class and middle-class who are connected in some way to wildcat rescuing the the Amazon forest.

Culture Clash: A British man and an American woman become colleagues and lovers while working together in Peru to rescue wildcats, such as ocelots, but their relationship is affected by the stress of the work and their respective emotional baggage. 

Culture Audience: “Wildcat” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in nature documentaries that show how wild animals and human beings can have meaningful connections and can change each other’s lives.

Samantha Zwicker in “Wildcat” (Photo by Trevor Frost/Amazon Content Services)

The riveting documentary “Wildcat” is less about animal preservation in the wilderness and more about how saving these animals can also help save a human rescuer’s sanity and can be a beneficial healing process for people dealing with emotional trauma. It’s a movie about widespread and vast issues but told in a very intimate and personal way. People who aren’t inclined to watch nature documentaries might be surprised by how much they will be affected by “Wildcat.”

Directed by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, “Wildcat” was filmed from 2018 to 2022, and follows the personal journeys of two people involved in saving wildcats in the Peruvian Amazon from being captured and sold, as well as advocating for these wildcats to live safely in their natural habitat. Harry Turner (a British military veteran) and Samantha Zwicker (an American founder of an environmental non-profit group) met each other by chance and ended up becoming work colleagues and lovers in a relationship that was both productive and volatile.

At the time that they met in 2015, Turner was in his early 20s and a lost soul living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, stemming largely from his combat experiences in the Afghanistan war. He signed up to be in the military when he was 18 years old. After being honorably discharged from the military because of his mental health issues, Turner led an aimless life where he experienced self-harm and a suicide attempt.

In the documentary, Turner says he decided leave England and go somewhere to “disappear” where no one knew who he was. That’s how he ended up in Peru, where he met Zwicker, who was a University of Washington Ph.D. candidate and founder of Hoja Nueva (which means “new leaf” in Spanish), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the people, creatures and the environment of the Amazon region. The group’s program for wild animals is called Protect Rewild. Most of the Peru footage in “Wildcat” was filmed in the region’s Madre de Dios area, where Turner and Zwicker lived in a part of the jungle that’s described in the documentary as “five hours from the nearest town.”

Soon after Zwicker and Turner met, she asked him to help her do something that Hoja Nueva had never done before: teach an orphaned baby ocelot how to live independently in the wild. This training period for the ocelot takes about 18 months. Turner and Zwicker’s work relationship turned into a romance that went through extreme ups and downs during the making of “Wildcat.” The relationship was also tested when Zwicker had to go back to the Seattle area to continue her graduate studies, thereby leaving Turner to carry on the work in Peru, often with him having extended periods of isolation with the ocelot.

The movie’s opening scene shows Turner with one of the young male ocelots that he took care of before parting ways with him in the wilderness when the ocelot was ready to live on its own. Turner feeds the ocelot a dead bird. The ocelot jumps on Turner’s shoulder and rides on him like household pet.

Turner expresses his bittersweet feelings about letting go of an animal that he grew to love like a parent loves a child: “The reintroduction [to the wilderness] was always the one reason to put the wildcat back into the wild again. But it’s just hard. It’s hard to let go of something you love, especially if you’re letting them go into one of the most dangerous environments in the world.”

Early on in the documentary, Turner is shown with his first baby ocelot, a male named Khan, who was rescued from a tree that was cut down by loggers. Turner’s strong emotional bond with Khan is evident, and he openly says that he thinks of Khan like an ocelot son. Turner says in the documentary, “When Khan came into our hands, that’s when my life had a purpose.” Without giving away too much information, something happens to Khan that devastates Turner, and he goes into a deep depression. It takes him several months to recover.

Things start to look up about a year later, when another orphaned baby ocelot comes into lives of Turner and Zwicker. His name is Keanu, the ocelot that is featured the most in this documentary. The footage of Turner and Keanu together is heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking. It’s mostly just a delight to see the meaningful and loving bond that develops between Turner and Keanu. This bond is essentially a parent/child relationship.

Because of Zwicker’s university studies where she has to go back to the United States for extended periods of time, she is not the primary caretaker of Keanu. She’s not a background person in the documentary, but if “Wildcat” were a scripted movie, Zwicker would be a supporting character, not the main star. So much of the movie is focused on Turner, at one point, the documentary shows Turner temporarily going back to England to be with his immediate family (his parents and younger brother), and these family members then to Peru to visit him. Zwicker’s family members are not in the documentary.

“Wildcat” has some cute moments of Zwicker and Turner together as a couple, as they do things such as canoodle in bed in their ramshackle abode, spend time with the ocelot like proud parents, or going on hikes together. Turner gushes about their relationship: “We’re best friends and partners.” But things get very dark in their relationship when Turner has bouts of depression, temper tantrums, self-harming and crippling anxiety. Zwicker gets overwhelmed and is conflicted over how to handle Turner’s mental health issues.

On the one hand, Turner’s bond with Keanu has been beneficial to Turner’s recovery from PTSD and his other mental health issues. On the other hand, there’s concern over how Turner will handle the inevitable, permanent separation when Keanu will have to live on his own in the wilderness. Even if it might be obvious how this movie is going to end, it’s still compelling to watch.

Zwicker has her own emotional issues to deal with in this relationship, which might explain why she was so attracted to Turner. She opens up about having an abusive, alcoholic father and geting involved in many dysfunctional relationships in her life. Zwicker talks about how she and her mother have a tendency not to give up on people, so they stay in bad relationships longer than they should. Zwicker says of Turner, “When I came across Harry, he was extremely misunderstood … but I obviously saw something super-special in him.”

“Wildcat” shows if Zwicker and Turner break up or stay together. Regardless of where the relationship ends up, the documentary shows how these two people found each other through their mutual love of helping animals, and how the animals they rescued also taught these two human beings a few things about how to help themselves during hard times. Zwicker says in the documentary that she trusts animals more than she trusts people.

“Wildcat” is the type of fascinating documentary where viewers can tell that the filmmakers didn’t know how the movie was going to end while making the documentary. The cinematography of “Wildcat” is often breathtaking, even if a few rambling parts of this 105-minute film could have used tighter editing. “Wildcat” is a true reflection of life’s unpredictability and how taking big risks can sometimes lead to some of life’s greatest challenges and unexpected rewards.

Amazon Studios released “Wildcat” in select U.S. cinemas on December 21, 2022. Prime Video will premiere “Wildcat” on December 30, 2022.

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