My Octopus Teacher documentary review: out of the way, human

part of my On Netflix Globally and Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: This otherwise gorgeous nature documentary is marred by the banal self-therapy of its human protagonist... and he is nowhere near as interesting as the manic pixie dream octopus who changes his life.
I’m “biast” (pro): love a good nature documentary
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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I wrote precisely one note for myself while I was watching the newly Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher, because I didn’t want to forget it. Though the longer I watched and the more the film unfurled, the more certain I was that that could not possibly happen. Because: damn.

The one note is this: manic pixie dream… octopus?

Look. This is 75 percent a gorgeous nature documentary, one that shows us things we’ve never seen before onscreen, as far as I’m aware. South African filmmaker Craig Foster swam and snorkeled every day in the turbulent south Atlantic seas off the Cape, and in the kelp forests just beneath, and slowly, over the course of more than a year, developed a, well, friendship with an octopus. He shot lots of footage of the octopus and captured some extraordinary moments, from the strategic way she hunted to — in a sequence that is truly moving — the aftermath of an attack on her by her nemeses, predatory pyjama sharks. She also made repeated physical contact with Foster in a way that we would not expect from a solitary aquatic creature facing a much larger primate who cannot even breathe in her world.

My Octopus Teacher Craig Foster
Hey, get a room, you guys…

It’s an extraordinary relationship, to be sure, but Teacher directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed made the baffling decision to put not the octopus but Foster at the center of their tale. He was in a bad way, lost in life and struggling to find new purpose for himself, and his experience in the ocean and observing the octopus healed him and changed his perspective on himself and on the natural world. Which is very nice for him and seems genuine and heartfelt: he went on to found the Sea Change Project to protect South African marine environments. But way too much of the film’s runtime, which is just barely feature length, is given over to his waxing rhapsodic over the octopus. Instead of merely letting us enjoy her adventures with just enough context and commentary for us to understand her, Teacher becomes all about Foster’s soul-searching and (figurative) garment-rending. His self-therapy gets stretched out to the point of banality.

As is usually the case in movies about men who encounter manic pixie dream girls, he is nowhere near as interesting as she is. As is usually the case, this should be her story, not his.

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Mon, May 10, 2021 1:39am

I’ll give this a shot sometime. But for a story that puts the inner lives of octopuses front and center, as intelligent beings with personalities—as people, basically—I recommend Sy Montgomery’s wonderful book The Soul of an Octopus.

Thu, May 13, 2021 12:26am

Dammit, Manic Pixie Dream Octopus was going to be the subtitle of my upcoming Dark Jazz Hypnagogic Pop epic fantasy concept album/spoken-word sushi cookbook. Back to the drawing board I guess.

I decided in my early twenties that I would never again eat an animal that might be smarter than me. Octopi and pigs were immediately off the menu, but due to the steady deterioration of my mental faculties, more and more critters have been crossed off the list over the years.

I’m pretty much down to fish faith healers (mostly sardines and tilapia, what a bunch of morons) and the occasional Flat-Earther chicken.

This review gave me a sudden craving for a gender-swapped Shape of Water with Danny DeVito and an Octopus-lady sea monster. Don’t think I’ll watch the film, but thank you for the review.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sat, May 29, 2021 11:58am

Manic Pixie Dream Octopus was going to be the subtitle of my upcoming Dark Jazz Hypnagogic Pop epic fantasy concept album/spoken-word sushi cookbook. Back to the drawing board I guess.

Nah, just give me a shoutout in the acknowledgements. And maybe a free copy. :-)