A Street Cat Named Bob isn’t a good title. It’s cringey and has a lack of originality, relying on the chuckle it might provoke to save it from charges of laziness, looking up to what it’s sending up for validation. You’d be forgiven, too, for thinking that the premise is a little too familiar: just a few years ago we were treated to the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis where a down on his luck guitarist carries round a ginger cat through the streets of a metropolis. You might be surprised, then, to find that A Street Cat Named Bob is indeed original, based on a true-life tale chronicled in a book of the same name and, title aside, A Street Cat Named Bob is a rather sweet film.
The story chronicles the real-life James Bowen (Luke Treadway), a homeless heroin addict busking on the streets of London. He has a father who ignores him when he sees him on the street (Anthony Head), a fellow addict ‘friend’ who acts as an enabler (Darren Evans, best known for 2010’s Submarine), collects pennies for his melodies and his dinners from bins. He’s in need of a friend. Enter Bob, played adorably by the real-life Bob himself.
It’s bad luck that the story’s main components have already been seen and nailed: Trainspotting’s skag story, Once’s down-on-his-luck talented busker and Inside Llewyn Davis’ ginger cat companion, throwing in Robert Pattinson’s bedraggled, long-haired wannabe musician in How To Be. Street Cat, meshing all these together, suffers from a sense of dilution. It’s like a game of mash.
Diluted, maybe, but not shackled. Where the film succeeds—and it does, for the most part—is on the main friendship at the heart of the story, of Bowen and Bob. They’re an easily likable duo and seemingly genuine buddies, as far as a cat can be. Bob’s charming, all big eyes and meows, (generally as far as a cats acting range stretches) while Treadaway’s junkie Chris Martin wins you over from the get‑go. He never moans, never blames anyone else and the tears only come when he’s let others down.
To the credit of writers Tim John and Maria Nation, the troubled Bowen never indulges in self‑pity, as they know that stoicism rather than despondency and selflessness—like spending only £20 on Bob’s medication rather than dinner—is what gets an audience on side.
Director Roger Spottiswoode (best known for the strange combination of Turner & Hooch and Pierce Brosnan’s Tomorrow Never Dies) takes advantage of Bowen’s busking to put London front and centre. His London has a sheen of optimism, and though the city’s dodgier estates are draped in dinginess, red buses glean, bus conductors are friendly (and apparently still exist) and people on Oxford Street are just waiting to be nice to you. Think of the crisp and endearing London of 2014’s Paddington, with added heroin and absent fathers. But Spottiswoode straddles the darker and surprisingly honest look at addiction with hopefulness just right, using one to heighten the effect of the other.
And though he over-uses Bob’s POV (think the web-crawling from 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man), the technique helps to give a sense of reciprocity to Bowen and Bob’s friendship, while staying on the right side of the unbelievable.
But Ruta Gedmintas’ love interest story feels just like that: a simple love interest, i.e. not very interesting. This is no fault of Gedmintas, but that of the writing: she’s the dictionary definition of ‘kooky’, with a contrived drug-addiction family background that feels far too convenient (that’s because it is, with the character added for the film). The middle act of the will-they-won’t-they arc is thrown in too late in the day and clumsily resolved in the midst of the happy clappy ending. The artistic license would’ve perhaps been best taken at the film’s climax, where—although true to the real-life story—things comes together a little too easily.
Though A Street Cat Named Bob can’t quite shake off its unwanted sense of homage to films that have gone before it, alongside patches of contrived writing, the relationship of Bowen and Bob at the film’s core succeeds, with Treadaway engagingly carrying the film (and Bob) on his shoulders.