Monday, September 24, 2012

Here Kitty Kitty: "The Elephant in the Living Room" (2010)

If I didn't know this film was a documentary, I would be singing its praises for being such a well-constructed fictional drama.

Tim Harrison is a public safety officer, and a member of a non-profit organization called Outreach for Animals. He goes on call after call dealing with exotic animals that have escaped or were released by overwhelmed owners, animals that put Tim's and other's lives in jeopardy. Where does Tim work, where one year he had over two dozen calls about nuisance alligators and crocodiles? Ohio.

Terry Brumfield was disabled in a truck accident, and found solace and comfort in a new pet- a male African lion named Lambert. Terry raised him from a cub, and added female Lacy a few months later. Terry keeps them penned up on his junk-strewn property, but Lambert managed to escape anyway, earning the duo a new holding pen- a hot old horse trailer.

Director Webber makes it evident that Tim and Terry will eventually meet, interspersing this suspenseful story with shorter vignettes from both sides of the exotic pet debate. Dozens of states have no laws restricting ownership of animals like bears, cougars, venomous snakes, and elephants (providing the film with its great metaphorical title). Watching hidden camera footage of children hauling away new "pets" from irresponsible auctions is nothing short of haunting. Burmese pythons dumped in the Florida Everglades are now breeding, and many are put down (shot) on sight because there are not enough responsible parties to take them. Webber combines the Tim/Terry battle of wills with familiar news footage showing the viewer the dangers of having these animals.

The footage Webber has indicates he must be sitting on hundreds of hours of coverage. A documentary documents, and the fact that cameras (both Webber's and other's) are present during some of the life-changing events concerning Terry and the lions cannot be attributed to luck. The death of one animal near the end of the film is sad, disturbing, and frustratingly preventable, and Webber does not exploit it to prove his point.

While people are finally talking about the proverbial and literal elephant in the living room (the phenomenon has sparked its own cable television series), Michael Webber has put a fresh spin on a tragedy tinged with familiarity. When it comes to recent documentaries, I have been on a very good streak, and "The Elephant in the Living Room" is one of the better, more provocative efforts I have seen this year. (* * * *) out of five stars.