Film Critic

Chuck Koplinski is The News-Gazette's film critic. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter (@ckoplinski).

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With all the movies sent to me during awards season, it’s easy for one or two to slip through the cracks.

(Truth be told, if I see four or five bad movies in a row, I give up on the medium, seek solace in books for a while and am guarded in what I watch next.)

Such was the case with Netflix’s “My Octopus Teacher,” one that got by me, despite the myriad pieces of promotional material I got, one of them containing a quote from Jane Goodall calling it “one of the best movies ever.”

(Really, what does Jane Goodall know about movies?)

However, once it won the Oscar for Best Documentary, I knew it was time to watch.

I’m glad that I did, as it truly is an astounding piece of work.

A gorgeous documentary taking place at the tip of South Africa, it chronicles the relationship — yes, relationship — that develops between a depressed man and an octopus he encounters during his daily dives into a kelp forest in a bay near his home.

Though the framing story is threadbare and underdeveloped, the wonders on display more than make up for it.

Craig Foster is the human in this equation, a documentary filmmaker who had the good fortune of growing up in a tiny community called False Bay outside of Cape Town.

No stranger to the sea, what with his family home abutting the shore, he had explored the nearby frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean often while younger, but it was a habit he’d gotten away from.

Feeling overworked and stressed, unable to sleep soundly through the night, Foster decides to take a daily sojourn back into the depths, exploring a nearby kelp forest that’s brimming with sea life, an ecosystem unto itself.

Upon doing this, the film shifts gears in the most profound way.

As filmed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, the filmmakers immerse us into a genuinely wondrous world, one that no amount of special effects could replicate in terms of wonder and, more importantly, intimacy.

Words are weak tools for describing the beauty on display. The crystal-clear water allows us to see the most brightly colored fish, some looking more like aliens than any sea creatures we’re familiar with.

The long trees of kelp rise from the ocean floor, creating a canopy of sorts that Foster swims through along with predatory sharks and, of course, the titular octopus, a vibrant mottled red creature that reveals one wonder after another the more we observe her.

We have the distinct privilege of being able to do so for nearly a year as Foster interacts with her every day, their bond growing so strong that she begins to follow him and even allows him to pet her while resting on his chest.

This, and other moments like them, are instances of divinity, a connection being made that transcends the world’s petty concerns, giving us a sense of perspective that’s invaluable.

While Foster contends this was transformative — and I’m sure it was — the effort to show how it has changed him comes off as disingenuous.

We don’t get any specifics regarding the extent of the troubles he was experiencing at the beginning of the film, making any proclamation of profound change ring hollow.

Still, you can tell he realizes how blessed he is to have an octopus for a teacher, a feeling we’re able to share vicariously thanks to this passionate-if-slightly-misguided film.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter @ckoplinski. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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