I went into this documentary a little disappointed, as I thought it might be about the handsy priests who taught at my all-boys high school. But like the diver who narrates this incredible drama, I warmed to the man-humbled-by-nature plot quickly.
As animals, octopi have never enjoyed cuddly status. They had a YouTube moment when videos circulated showcasing their intelligence and cool morphing abilities, but from Alien’s face-hugger to Disney’s Ursula to every other Blumhouse production, the go-to strategy for creating the scariest monsters has seemed to be ‘add octopus’. Face, arms, crotch, no matter. As long as tentacles are involved, viewers will surely ink their pants.
Well, My Octopus Teacher seeks to right this terrible wrong, and does a wonderful job of it. It’s the closest I’ve seen a nature documentary come to a compelling 3-act relationship drama.
We first meet the male half of this heterocto couple, our narrator Craig Foster (which couldn’t be a more generic guy-in-a-relationship-movie name, not to mention the onomatopoeia of his craggy personality). He informs that he was raised on the stormy cape of South Africa, and we’re shown a town nestled in cliffs high above a coast of sharp rocks and angry waves -except for one little beach hut, which is off by itself right down by the waves, getting slammed and inundated. This was where Crag grew up, he tells us, and we are left to assume his parents were either the town outcasts or Popeye and Olive Oyl. Either way, he’s gotta be messed up.
After a stint filming native trackers in the Kalahari, now middle-aged Craig returns to his fraught cape, emotionally spent and disconnected. He finds a lot of ways to say he’d become an asshole without actually saying it, and when the only shot of his wife in the entire hour and a half is a blurry silhouette in a quick cut-away, we think, uh, yeah.
So he retreats back to the sea, free-diving in a kelp forest off the coast, and soon meets the better half of this relationship, a female octopus. To avoid triggering any assumptions of human/non-human hierarchy, he doesn’t give her a name. This is respectful and appreciated, though due to her pluckiness and ability to morph so easily into different roles I’m tempted to call her Saoirse. But I’ll follow Craig’s lead and refer to the octopus as ‘the octopus’ and use the pronoun ‘she’.
At first shy and skittish as any wild animal would be when a giant human gets up in its face, the octopus’ natural curiosity quickly gets the best of her, and soon she’s reaching out a tentacle to touch Craig’s hands and explore his face. He describes her as alien-like, but imagine the picture she’s forming of his huge plastic-and-glass eyes on skin as pliable as a jellyfish. It’s a match made in the Star Wars cantina.
After the meet-cute, we get the typical Act II: the guy’s stupid behavior scares the girl off, so he resorts to stalking her. The stunning underwater cinematography by Roger Horrocks has us forgetting that Craig is free-diving, which means he has to surface every two or three minutes, and he’s out there all day, every day. Time is shown via intermittent titles – Day 2, Day 24, Day 101, etc – and we realize Craig is obsessed, which he does admit. He thinks about the octopus even when he’s not in the water, even dreams about her, the details of which we are thankfully not given, as I’m thinking some combo of face-hugger and French kissing.
His efforts, though, do serve to make us fall as in love with the octopus as he has. Each new encounter illuminates more of her intelligence and the world she operates in, and as great acting is all in the eyes, so they say, we’re treated to many close-ups of hers, now open and inquisitive, now squinty and suspicious. She flirts and teases, she plays with a school of fish, she walks along the ocean floor on two tentacles, the others fanned out like a big hoop skirt.
As octopi are solitary, this plot doesn’t give Craig a romantic rival, but it does provide a deadly nemesis, and you probably guessed right – it’s a shark. This one is near blind and dressed in pinstripes, hence the name Pajama Shark, which, ok, best shark name ever. Pajama Shark is too small to threaten Craig, so the focus is all on her peril.
At the close of Act II, the shark has sniffed our octopus out. Because we’ve come to care so much about this being, this delightful and intelligent personality, the attack is harrowing, moreso than all those nature doc images we’re used to of lions felling a cute gazelle. My partner and I were yelling “Help her!!” to Craig, but he has vowed not to interfere with nature’s process. So like those parents desperate for Facebook fame who keep the video rolling as their toddlers tumble down stairs and crack their heads open, Craig films as the octopus gets a tentacle violently torn off.
Now he wonders if his relentless pursuit of her made her vulnerable, if her affection for him had her exposing herself in a way she wouldn’t normally have. A little late for the guilt, Crag. With the octopus injured and weak, he decides to break his rule and open some mussels for her. But she’s not having it.
Eventually she does recover, grows back her tentacle and returns to her routine, which now includes Craig. At the start of the film, he informed us that octopi only live a year, so by the time the title ‘Day 324’ comes up, we know to grab the box of tissues. One of the final shots is the octopus clinging to Craig’s chest as he gently strokes her, and I tell you, I haven’t cried that much since Old Yeller.
His year with the octopus leaves Craig with a renewed spirit, and the film ends with him speaking of the joy of watching his teenage son fall in love with the sea. Before she passed, our octopus had 500,000 babies, so we hold out hope for a sequel, where Craig’s son meets one of her children, and they fall in love too.
My Octopus Teacher is streaming on Netflix.