Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Written by Tim John and Maria Nation
Starring: Luke Treadaway, Ruta Gedmintas, Joanne Froggatt, Anthony Head, and introducing Bob the Cat
Runtime: 103 minutes
Putting stories based on real life on the big screen is often a daunting challenge. Many times the stories worth adapting are grim tales of survival, historical dramas, declassified special operations or the life stories of famous people, which fall under the category of biopic (that’s bio-pic as in biographical picture, not bi-opic, which sounds like bi-optic, or seeing out of two eyes and the opposite of myopic) or sports films that tell the tales of teams overcoming long odds or cultural upheaval like integration. These films are often put through a standard formula and come out looking and feeling like every other based-on-a-true-story movie. There are exceptions, but the norm is to pretty much make the same movie over and over. Then there are the ones that are not about famous people, sports teams or survival tales. These, the slice-of-life pictures, are rare. Their ranks include Marley & Me, Joy, and others that tell the tales of real people that aren’t famous or had to endure war or anything like that but felt compelled to write a book about themselves (or were asked) because their story was too good to not have people know about it. A Street Cat Named Bob is in the latter category. Without the couple of books that James Bowen wrote about his experiences (and the lucky fate of finding his cat Bob), we would never have known about this truly heartwarming (fair warning: this is not the last time that word will be used here) story.
The film tracks homeless busker (a street entertainer) junkie James Bowen (Luke Treadaway) who is sort of trying to recover by attending a methadone program. He falls off and nearly dies after doing heroin with a ‘friend’ and is rescued by his program manager Val (Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt). She pulls some strings and gets him into section housing so he can get off the streets and commit to his recovery. On his first night in the new place, he thinks he hears an intruder, but it’s just an orange tabby cat that climbed in through the window and started eating his cornflakes. After trying to find the cat’s owner and failing, James tries to set the cat free, hoping he will find his way home. Upon returning from busking and finding the cat injured, he encounters a neighbor, Belle (Ruta Gedmintas), who works at a free vet clinic, where she sends James when she can’t treat the cat’s wounds on her own. She says she can sort of speak to animals and the cat said he was sent to be with James and he should be called Bob (and is played by the real-life Bob the Cat). After the vet visit, and a little cajoling from Bob, James decides to keep him and they form a partnership that starts bringing in lots of busking money and more.
The script, by Tim John (whose only other credit of any note was Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde from 1995, a dreadful film from top to bottom) and Maria Nation (who has been writing for British TV for 20 years and is making her feature screenwriting debut here), is based on the book by James Bowen and Gary Jenkins. The two make good choices in showing all the aspects of the story, positive and negative. They don’t dwell too much on either and paint a clear picture of a man just trying to get his life together (not back together, because it never really was together in the first place). There must have been temptation to skirt the darker parts of James’ addiction and homelessness and depression, but they don’t. They even include the lengthy withdrawal process when James tries to go clean from the methadone. They make James a man who finally wants to connect with people and really tries with Belle and his estranged gather Nigel (played by Anthony Head, whom Buffy fans would know better as Giles). The connection he forges with Bob is sweet but also completely understandable as he’s never had a relationship with any being that included the unconditional love that Bob seems to have for him. John and Nation give all of their characters purpose and weight and avoided the typical formula that this kind of picture usually gets subjected to. It does feel like they put it through some aspects of John Carney’s great Once from 2007, taking some elements to help aid the busking aspect of the story, but that’s not a bad thing.
A big surprise was the director, Roger Spottiswoode. Spottiswoode is best known for directing Turner & Hooch, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and the Bond picture Tomorrow Never Dies. Not exactly a track record that would lead to this picture, but it shows that we should never let our past dictate our future. Spottiswoode makes some interesting directorial decisions here, notably often returning to Bob’s POV. At first, it doesn’t seem like a good choice, but as the film progresses that angle incorporates Bob into the picture as a character and not just a prop as animals are often used. The kind of bring up those odd shots in Jaws that seem to be from the shark’s perspective. He also utilizes some clever editing and camera angles to denote time passage, something that is particularly on display during the withdrawal sequence.
I’d like to say that the standout actor in the film is Luke Treadaway for his earnest and honest portrayal of James Bowen, not to mention a great singing voice and excellent performances of the songs, but I can’t. The real breakout is Bob the Cat. Yes, it’s nice seeing Joanne Froggatt outside of Downton Abbey and Anthony Head doing good (as always) work and even seeing Ruta Gedmintas give a performance that shows she could someday be a star, but they’re nothing next to the adorableness of Bob, not to mention how well behaved he is (I have three cats and none of them are even close to being as good as Bob. If this is how he is naturally, he’s not of this earth). He steals the show here much as he apparently did for the real James Bowen.
A Street Cat Named Bob is unabashedly heartwarming (told you it’d be back) and equally honest. It doesn’t sugarcoat the bad times in James’ life, nor does it let him take the good times for granted. The film earns its good moments, letting them evolve from the difficulties instead of forcing them on the story for the sake of making people feel good. If you do feel good at the end (and you should), it’s because Bowen’s life is inspirational and his love for Bob is genuine. A Street Cat Named Bob is the rare true-life story that doesn’t have the machinations of typicality bending the film to its will and that is refreshing above all.