Alibi V.25 No.46 • Nov 17-23, 2016 

Film Review

A Street Cat Named Bob

Felines and heroin make for an odd mix in feel-good British drama

A Street Cat Named Bob (2016)

Directed by Roger Spotiswoode

Cast: Luke Treadaway, Bob the Cat, Joanne Froggatt, Ruta Gedmintas

Pussy Riot
Pussy Riot
When it comes to sentimental animal tales, dogs generally have it all over cats. From Old Yeller to Marley & Me, there’s just something about man’s best friend that tugs at the heartstrings. Sure, occasionally we might get a Harry and Tonto, but for the most part cats are relegated to comic relief on the big screen (see for example: That Darn Cat, The Cat From Outer Space, Garfield, Nine Lives). England may be trying to balance the scales, however, with the teary-eyed, feel-good feline drama A Street Cat Named Bob.

The film is based on the true story of James Bowen, a London street busker who adopted a stray cat and turned his life around. Bowen and his pal Bob became something of a sensation in the U.K., having been featured in YouTube videos and in newspaper articles and inspiring a series of bestselling books. Here in America the pair are considerably less well-know, but this feature film retelling of their autobiography should generate a small wave of fandom stateside.

The film stars Luke Treadaway (Clash of the Titans, Attack the Block) as Bowen, a young homeless man making his meager living playing guitar and singing songs in London’s Covent Garden. He’s also a recovering heroin addict, taking life day by day. Thanks to the help of a sympathetic substance abuse counselor (Joanne Froggatt from “Downton Abbey”), Bowen is given assistance with a government flat and methadone treatments. One evening, returning to his humble refuge, Bowen encounters a friendly orange tabby. He tries to return the cat to its rightful owner, but can find no one in the neighborhood who will claim it. He turns the cat back out on the streets, but it returns several days later with a serious wound. Enlisting the help of a neighbor named Betty (Ruta Gedmintas from “The Strain”), who happens to volunteer at a neighborhood animal clinic, Bowen nurses the animal back to health and dubs him Bob.

A Street Cat Named Bob contains an odd mixture of elements. On the one hand, it’s a cute animal movie. On the other, it’s a semi-gritty tale of homelessness and drug addiction.

After that, Bob is Bowen’s constant companion, following him on the number 73 bus as he travels to Covent Garden to earn his spare change. Perching on Bowen’s shoulders, Bob becomes something of a sensation and a draw for the tourists, all of whom seem to want a photo with the personable feline. As Bowen’s fortunes start to turn around, his life takes a few more twists. He finds himself drifting into a chaste romance with Betty and tries to convince his counselor that it’s time to give up the methadone.

A Street Cat Named Bob contains an odd mixture of elements. On the one hand, it’s a cute animal movie. On the other, it’s a semi-gritty tale of homelessness and drug addiction. Can a film be formulaically feel-good and hard-hittingly honest at the same time? Sort of. Director Roger Spottiswoode, who gave us action films such as Tomorrow Never Dies and The 6th Day, seems like an odd choice to helm such a balancing act—but then, he also made the animal-based tales Turner & Hooch and The Journey Home.

A Street Cat Named Bob is a simple, rather artless piece of work. Nothing fancy going on here. At times it looks and feels more like a television movie. But its heart is in the right place. And maybe this story doesn’t need a Ken Loach level of verisimilitude. Treadaway makes for a fine lead, looking like a handsome, slightly strung-out chap with a genuine fragility about him. The actor also offers up a rather good singing voice. Surprisingly, Bob the Cat stars as himself, lending an undeniable veracity to that role.

A Street Cat Named Bob
“Nope, This is my conjoined Siamese twin. ... Siamese. Get it?”

The film does give its protagonists a realistic up-and-down path and doesn’t exactly soft-pedal its rough setting. And it never turns its animal costar into some sort of magical, overly anthropomorphized creature. Still, there are moments that work better than others. The idea that someone who has been an addict most of his life, alienating friends and family along the way, might have a difficult time with relationships is perfectly realistic. That forming a bond with a loyal pet would be a fine first step is also quite believable. On the other hand, most of the relationships that aren’t man-and-cat-based—like the main character’s attempts to reconcile with his estranged father (Anthony Stewart Head)—come across as too much cinematic shorthand.

A Street Cat Named Bob isn’t exactly Disney’s Trainspotting. (And I’m not so sure it should have been.) It’s sweet and occasionally maudlin and just honest enough to strike an emotional chord. Cat lovers, put-off by years of Hollywood’s clear canine bias, will take to it like catnip.