A little movie that sinks its claws in

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.

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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




2 thoughts on “A little movie that sinks its claws in

  1. Ben McEachen

    Thanks for your review, Warren. But I’m left wondering a few more things about what you thought of this feel-good movie. Such as:
    What’s Joanne Froggatt like?
    Is the film quick or slow-paced?
    Do you have to be an animal lover to really love it?
    How confronting are the scenes of drug use?
    Given the film touches on heavy issues, why is it only PG?
    Is it treating serious issues too lightly – or is a measured depiction of addiction which doesn’t feel the need to descend into graphic or horrific imagery?

    You know, that kind of thing is what I’d like to know about this Street Cat. Oh, and is this movie offering valuable answers when it comes to where I – in my own life – should seek relational purpose in life?

    Reply
    1. Warren Bird

      Joanne Froggat’s role is quite modest in terms of screen time, though the character’s contribution to the story is vital. It doesn’t make a lot of demands of her as an actor really. She’s Anna without the maid’s uniform.

      The film moves along smartly. The longest scene or sequence is the period when James is coming off methodone, a week of being locked in his room and often writhing. This is shown in lots of short, sharp scenes that convey the passage of that amount of time without labouring over it. I found the timing of scenes that were showing tough situations and those that were humorous was pretty good, which helped keep my attention.

      I don’t think you need to be an animal lover. The things Bob does are important, but what’s really critical is how James responds to Bob. In a way, as James talks to his cat he narrates us through. So the film is actually about A Streetperson Named James.

      The drug scenes are delicately handled, implied rather than overtly filmed. Adults know what’s going on, but children wouldn’t get any unhelpful ideas.

      That’s one of the reasons it has a PG rating. The other potential for an M would have been through some of the people James deals with. The drug pushers, for instance. But they are fairly peripheral in terms of how the film proceeds. Baz is a threatening sort of character. This creates dramatic tension at times, as there was real risk that James would start using again, but this would only be evident to a viewer with a bit of maturity about them.

      It doesn’t treat the issues lightly by any means, but it’s more about the effects on James’ life than the drug-taking as such so there’s no need for gory detail. He meets misfortune easily because he doesn’t always have his wits about him, but he proves quite a resilient character who can pick up the pieces quite well. Joanne Froggatt’s character’s main contribution is to provide some practical and moral encouragement at these critical times.

      Does it provide valuable answers? I think James Bowen would be disappointed if it didn’t, because that’s why he wrote the books and endorses the movie by his cameo at the end. As well as everyone needing to have a Val, Betty or Bob in their lives, we all have the opportunity to be a supporter and cheer leader to someone else, or to hang in there with an unconditional presence in another’s life. This is a story of humans in fellowship or community helping one another, but especially the most vulnerable, to live purposeful lives.

      And if you ever wonder about those folk selling The Big Issue on the streets, the film will explain what’s going on. When he’s banned from busking for a while, James becomes a Big Issue seller. I won’t look at these folk quite the same way again.

      Reply

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