My Octopus Teacher is a love story, make no mistake — it might be unconventional, but it’s a stirring, often stunning tale of connection.
My Octopus Teacher is a love story. Netflix has no shortage of those, obviously, but this one, the first-ever original South African documentary, is striking in that only half of its central couple is a human being. His name is Craig Foster and he is, rather conveniently, an award-winning filmmaker. He’s also in love with a mollusk.
Not to be flippant about matters, obviously. Love is love, at the end of the day, and it takes us all on the same journeys of discovery, of ourselves and our partners and the wider world as we begin to understand it through a new lens. Foster has seen more of the world than most, but one of its richest ecosystems is right on his doorstep. It’s there that he meets and gradually befriends this film’s eponymous mollusk. Around their relationship a feature-film is built, one that’s technically a nature documentary but plays more like a magical-realism love story that crosses the species transom and unlocks some kind of deeper truth and awareness. And “deeper” isn’t a pun, honestly.
Foster makes for a compelling presence. His professional experience has given him a particular perspective, but his emotional state when he begins his process of free-diving is a relatable predicament. We perhaps don’t all have access to a completely alien undersea environment, but we’ve all felt purposelessness and revitalized ourselves by submerging in something new – literally, as in this case, or figuratively. Because Foster’s healing process makes this literal, My Octopus Teacher also doubles as an introduction to this little-understood and, apparently, densely-populated water world.
Among that population is the octopus; a strikingly smart and surprisingly bold creature that’s obviously strange but exhibits oddly human characteristics – curiosity among them. She’s built for stealth and concealment, but day by day, dive by dive, Foster lures her into the open and onto film, capturing some of the remarkable events of her life and showcasing the shocking ingenuity of this creature, so poorly understood and so seemingly well-suited to a horror movie it might be.
Lots of creatures are clever and full of surprises, obviously, but what separates My Octopus Teacher is emotional intelligence; a real and miraculous bonding that takes place over time and is pretty inarguable. It’s stirring for the viewer, as though some kind of barrier has been broken down between human beings and our neighbors; between land and what lies beneath. Foster becomes physically rejuvenated by his daily excursions and exposure to the water, but he also becomes more emotionally aware and understanding thanks to his connection with the octopus. This sounds creepy, I know, but it never plays like that for a second; it’s a frank and touching account of surprising intimacy.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.