National Geographic

Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story Review – A Love Like No Otter

Hot Docs 2024

5 mins read

Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story
(United Kingdom, 77 min.)
Dir. Charlie Hamilton James
Programme: World Showcase (Canadian Premiere)


Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story comes at a time when the world could use a gentle reminder of the existence of good. Renowned National Geographic photographer Charlie Hamilton James gives audiences the charming story of how an otter struggling ashore sparked joy and filled a void in one man’s life.

Living a simple life in the Shetland Islands, Billy appears to resemble many individuals who are contented with their lives but have a nagging feeling that something’s missing. When an otter washes up on his jetty, he and his wife Susan begin caring for the adorable creature, who he names Molly. The sweet otter soon consumes their lives. We see Susan calling a veterinarian after hearing some worrying wheezing from Molly. Billy texts Susan while at work asking for updates. Billy even builds an adorable mini version of their home for Molly.

Across the film, Billy and Molly’s relationship blossoms as Billy takes on a paternal role he never experienced previously. As for Molly, we can only assume she appreciated the warmth and coziness of her own personal “but and ben” home, giving her some security through her own life changes.

Save for a few observations from Billy, Susan serves as the film’s primary narrator. It’s an interesting choice by Hamilton James that serves the film well. Susan details Billy’s mental state, which he may have been reluctant to share, or in some cases, may not have even processed himself. And while the film centres around Billy and Molly’s story, it’s clear that Susan also grows fond of Molly, perhaps because of what the otter inspired in her husband.

Given Hamilton James’ Nat Geo pedigree (and the fact that this film is a production of the publication), the awe-inspiring images aren’t unexpected, but certainly welcome. The remoteness of the Shetlands and its position as the northernmost region of the United Kingdom offers viewers night skies painted with dazzling stars and the vibrant Northern Lights. There’s also visceral footage of the stormy skies and seas customary during the winter seasons to bring us right into their world.

While the visuals create an aesthetically pleasing film, they also emphasize the solitude those who live in the area, like Billy and Susan, experience. Far from the bustling sounds and chaos of a large city, the choice to live in such an area follows the choice to extricate oneself from the complications and stresses urban centres often bring. Through the imagery of this unspoken choice, we come closer to understanding what Molly means to Billy and how her presence has enlivened both Billy and Susan’s day to day.

The premise of Billy & Molly presents itself as a documentary about a man and the love he has for a wild otter he happens upon, and the messaging of the film is neither subtle nor overt. The film delivers on its more obvious take away surrounding our relationship with nature, but Hamilton James doesn’t beats us over the head with saccharine lessons learned with a heavy fist — save for may be the last sequence when Billy takes to the water in the hopes of seeing Molly’s world more clearly.

Instead, the photographer-cum-filmmaker provides us a glimpse into the possibilities that lay ahead when we open ourselves up to connections with clear eyes and a full heart. We simply can’t lose.

Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story screened at Hot Docs 2024.


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