At first glance, the feature documentary Cat Daddies is nothing more than a “feel-good” movie that explores the unlikely bond between man and feline. Fortunately, amid the cheeriness of this debut film by Los Angeles-based director Mye Hoang are some sobering insights, including how men are increasingly relying on their cats for stability as they try to survive a protracted Covid-19 pandemic and a world that feels very much out of control.
Cat Daddies features eight portraits of “cat dads” from all over the US, including a few “macho” types that one wouldn’t normally think of as cuddly kitty-lovers—a stuntman, a truck driver and a team of fire-fighters. The other five are a homeless man, a teacher, a Bay Area tech engineer, a cat rescuer and an actor/Instagram influencer. Of these, the story about David, a homeless guy based in New York City, and his cat Lucky is especially compelling and touching.
David, a former construction worker who has fallen on hard times, decides to adopt Lucky on a bitter cold winter day when he realizes the kitten has no place to call home. Lucky is soon an indispensable part of his life. Through her, David meets several new friends who later provide him with life-saving assistance. David suffers when he has to leave Lucky with a friend during an extended hospital stay to remove a tumor. Their bond is very strong, and while he is stretched out on the hospital bed, all he can think of is reuniting with Lucky again.
There has been a lot of Internet debate over whether it is fair for homeless people to own pets, with some animal lovers strongly opposed. Yet the film shows us how a pet like Lucky can be a lifeline for those with very little stability otherwise. Lucky alleviates stress and provides a sense of purpose for David. Lucky is ultimately just about all that David can call his own; given the choice, he would rather turn down an offer for shelter so he can stay with Lucky. The feline expands his social life given an otherwise lonely existence. As such, Lucky not only saves his life, but increases the quality of his life over time. This message in Cat Daddies is similar to that in Simone Butler’s documentary Year of the Dog (2021), namely, that it’s totally valid for the homeless to be pet owners. As the pandemic puts more pressure on the displaced and the less fortunate, the inclusion of this story is particularly meaningful.
Cat Daddies also explores through the portraits of the truck driver and the tech worker how masculinity is changing in America. Both men tell us they didn’t previously feel comfortable saying “I love cats” before bonding with their beloved pets. The truck driver, also named David, takes outdoor-loving Tora with him on the road. Over time, he discovers his passion for photography and nature, and creates a dedicated social media page of cat photos for fans.
Jeff the tech worker, meanwhile, relocates from San Francisco during the pandemic after rental prices become unaffordable. Landlords refuse to rent to him with his cat, so he buys a house in a remote area, only to give it up because Californian wildfires have been a constant threat. As he ponders his next move, he realizes his cat Zulu is the only unchanging factor that provides him with a sense of home he isn’t getting elsewhere.
Not all of the mini-tales in Cat Daddies feel inspiring. Those about the schoolteacher’s cat, a viral sensation, and the four kitties owned by the Instagram influencer are less about the emotional bond between man and cat but more how the cats serve as click-baits for their owners. Here, vanity seems to be a bigger driving force than the unconditional love the men have for their pets.
The growing prevalence of men as unabashedly proud cat-owners owes a lot to social media, which makes it easier for like-minded people to find each other. This point, however, is not fully explored in the documentary. Nevertheless, it does show how men’s changing attitudes towards cats is closely tied to unstable times and our changing work styles.
In addition to the unprecedented events of 2020 and a world that feels increasingly unpredictable, the fact that many of us are isolated and working at home has provided us with more time to discover the subtle attributes of our furry companions. One such attribute is that cats can be just as loyal as dogs, even if they manifest it differently. In that sense, Cat Daddies offers a lot more than just a fluffy celebration of cat ownership and manhood.
Cat Daddies is streaming as part of 2022 San Francisco IndieFest from February 3-13. It will also receive an in-person screening on February 5.
Karen Ma is a US-based film critic and independent film scholar specializing in Chinese cinema. Formerly a lecturer of Chinese Culture and Film at The Beijing Center of Chinese Studies, Ma is also the author of Excess Baggage (China Books, 2013), a novel about a Chinese family’s struggle in Tokyo.