I knew from Keanu’s first trailer that I’d find common ground with the film. After all, it promised a tale that would honor both male cat ownership and the musical stylings of George Michael. I’m deeply familiar with this heady brew, as evidenced by this video I recorded of my two kitty darlings listening to Michael’s “Freedom! ‘90” a few years back:
As promised, Michael’s songs are a recurring motif in Keanu, and they’re a fitting thematic addition to the movie. During his heyday, the five-o’clock-shadowed phenom presented a vision of pop masculinity that had components usually associated with being feminine: He was protective, nurturing, demonstrative, and kind. And take it from me — those are all traits one must have in order to be an effective cat daddy. Indeed, while Keanu isn’t a great film, there’s a lot that it gets right about being a feline’s father figure.
Men who own cats face a mild stigma in America, one that’s reinforced by our marginalization on the big screen. Cat-owning characters rarely get to shine in lead roles, and even when they do (Don Corleone being one memorable example), their choice of pet is rarely a defining trait. But as any of us can tell you, cat fatherhood is a defining trait. Your parenting of a cat — or, in my case, cats — very quickly becomes one of the main ways you’re understood by friends, family, romantic partners, and anyone who follows you on Instagram. We become obsessed with our little buddies.
That’s the first thing the movie nails. Jordan Peele’s character, Rell, very convincingly falls for his new feline. When the kitten literally shows up at his doorstep, he’s in a bad way. In the wake of a bad breakup, he’s been lying on his couch with the lights off, surrounded by takeout containers, weed paraphernalia, and regret.
I, too, procured my cats right after the end of a complicated relationship. I remember vividly the way my numb heart suddenly regained feeling sensation when I first saw the furry pair at the shelter. Peele completely sells the audience on this phenomenon. When he first gazes at his foundling, his face twitches once, twice, three times, producing a smile for the first time in what we can presume is a long while.
In no time at all, he has lost himself in this cat, talking incessantly about him, taking elaborate photos of him, and generally acting like nothing else matters in his world. He gives it a person’s name: Keanu. Although not all cat dads choose to follow this path, I can tell you that it’s immensely gratifying to dub your kitties with human monikers because it makes you feel slightly less insane when you have a long conversation with the creatures. It’s even more fun when the names have pop-culture relevance: Mine are named Barbara and Tim, named after the best Batgirl and the best Robin, respectively; I admired Rell’s choice to similarly honor fist-pumping action in his cat’s nomenclature.
Speaking of conversations, that’s another thing the movie gets right: the joy of having full-sentence dialogue with a kitty. Rell dives into this practice, head-first. “I’m nothing without you,” Rell says, hunched over Keanu’s scratching post to get eye-to-eye with his child. “And I’m gonna need you to clean up your little area.” He gets no response. “We’ll talk about it later,” he says as he leaves for a movie with his friend Clarence, played by Keegan-Michael Key.
The first meeting between Clarence and Keanu also rang true. Hanging out with your cat alone is one thing; hanging out with a friend who also fully appreciates the importance and magic of your cat can give you an intoxicating endorphin rush. There are so many people out there who will make fun of you for loving your feline, so finding a kindred spirit is thrilling — especially when that person doesn’t own a cat. That way, you’re not only sharing joy, you’re also giving the person an experience they can’t have on their own.
Of course, Rell and Clarence actually spend most of the movie apart from Keanu, trying to retrieve him during a violent escapade through the streets of Los Angeles. They go to astounding lengths to retrieve the little one, and therein lies the most resonant — and agonizing — part of the story for any cat dad. You watch what’s happening and start asking yourself, What would I do if my fur-baby was in danger like that?
Rell and Clarence initially offer a gang leader a bunch of money in exchange for the cat, and that’s certainly something I could see myself doing. I mean, Jesus, I’ve already spent an insane amount of cash on medical costs for my cats, so it wouldn’t be that much of a departure to try to buy him back from a villain. But the real question is whether or not I’d get involved in a tangled web of drugs, larceny, and murder in order to get Tim and/or Barbara back.
And y’know what? I think I would! I mean, I’d like to believe I would make better decisions than Rell and Clarence do, but their commitment wasn’t alien to me. It’s hard enough for me to deal with the basic fact that my cats are likely to die of natural causes before I do; I can hardly bring myself to even contemplate them being at risk of violent injury or (God, I can barely write the word) death. I’d do some crazy shit to prevent that, man.
But I can’t expect my tiny kids to do the same for me. That’s the one thing Keanu totally botches (well, at least in terms of cat stuff; it botches a lot of stuff comedically). On two occasions, Keanu saves Rell’s life in a pinch. What a bunch of bullshit. Part of the feline bargain is accepting that you can’t rely on your cats to reciprocate the care you give to them. Sure, you might get companionship and some loving nuzzles, but you’re always going to be the one doing the heavy lifting in the relationship. Such is the burden of being a cat dad — and oh, what a sweet burden it is.