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.
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.