Review: A Street Cat Named Bob
(PG) Luke Treadaway, Bob the Cat, Joanne Froggatt
I sat in a small theatre that was less than half full, sharing with only a handful of people a movie that put huge smiles on all our faces. A Street Cat Named Bob (directed by Australian filmmaker Roger Spottiswoode) deserves to be seen by more people than are showing up at a couple of Dendy sessions or a few smaller screens at the major cinema houses.
A Street Cat Named Bob is a good, positive, life-affirming film. Based on a true story, the simple tale is well told and well acted, including by the cat in the title role (who plays himself in many of the scenes). On the human front, James Bowen (played by Luke Treadaway) is a young man struggling to cope with what life has dished out to him – his parents’ divorce; having no settled home as a child; bullying, and fatherly rejection. As the film opens, he’s a drug addict, living on the streets of London and sometimes sleeping in unlocked cars. James tries to eke out some funds as a busker and associates with people whose idea of friendship is to drown together in the quagmire they’ve created for themselves. Bowen, at least, has a small spark of life in him, something noticed by his case worker Val (Joanne Froggatt, best known as Downton Abbey’s Anna). She organises some emergency housing for him while he goes through a methadone program, willing to take a chance that this is a life that can be rescued. The spark of life in James is evident, for example, in the scene where he goes into his flat for the first time — and rejoices that it has hot water!
There he meets two beings, one human and one feline, who will help him change his world. The feline is Bob, a ginger cat. (CONFESSION: This is one reason I went to see the movie, because the first pet my wife and I had after our marriage was a ginger cat. Cordelius lived his nine lives to the full over the next 15 years and continues his tenth, in our hearts, to this day.)
Bob simply turns up and won’t leave, despite James’ earnest and sincere attempts to find his owner. The two become inseparable and Bob’s presence in James’ life changes things for him in many ways. One is that it leads him to meet a neighbour, Betty (played by Treadaway’s real life girlfriend Ruta Gedmintas), a vegan and animal lover. Betty has some deep wounds from losing her brother to heroine, but through Bob becomes a part of James’ life. Both help each other see things in new ways.
The road to healing is precarious and Spottiswoode’s movie doesn’t gloss over some of the struggles and traumas that go with living rough. A Street Cat Named Bob doesn’t pretend that everyone will be saved. But although Val warns James that emotions are the enemy of a recovering addict, it is his emotional bond with Bob that eventually enables James to take the final, agonising step of coming off methadone.
An important backstory is that of James’ relationship with his father, Nigel (Anthony Head), who spends most of the film trying to avoid having anything to do with his son. Near the end, when James says to his dad that “the last time I stood before you sober was when I was 11”, he’s actually asking a profound question of Nigel. This scene has been described by some reviewers as “formulaic” and “simplistic”, but Nigel is drawn to respond with an honesty that turns their relationship around.
Although the idea of a cat giving someone purpose might sound contrived to many viewers, it’s perhaps a case of truth being stranger than fiction. When the real life James Bowen makes an appearance at the end – at a book signing, after his story is published – he says to his alter-ego, “I feel I’ve lived every minute of it.”
A Street Cat Named Bob is a real story of recovery and reconciliation. It’s a testament to the need to have a relational purpose in life, and of the powerful impact that someone believing in you can have. We all need to have Bobs, Vals and Bettys in our lives.
Warren Bird is Executive Director of Uniting Financial Services