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SXSW Review: “Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 11th, 2024

Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story (Charlie Hamilton James, 2024) out of 5 stars

There are few wild animals as cute as otters. I will fight anyone who disagrees. With their expressive faces, playful demeanor, and rich fur coat, they charm those fortunate enough to spot them in their natural habitat. In some countries, people keep them as pets, though this practice is neither wise nor kind to the species. Best to leave them be and enjoy their adorable frolicking from afar.

In Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story, from longtime wildlife photographer and cinematographer Charlie Hamilton James, we have the great fortune to see one particular otter up close. The circumstances that bring her into contact with humans may be tragic, but the cinematic results are magic. Molly is a star.

Billy’s finger touching Molly’s paw as it pokes through the gaps in the jetty. @National Geographic/Johnny Rolt

As are Billy and his wife, Susan, the couple who care for Molly as she gains strength and confidence over the months that James and his crew gather their footage. Most likely orphaned as a pup when her mother and sibling were hit by a car (so everyone surmises, based on the best evidence at hand), she makes her way to the dock in front of Billy and Susan’s house, surprisingly open to interacting with Billy when he first encounters her. Correctly guessing that she is alone, young, vulnerable, and hungry, he begins to feed her and act as surrogate parent.

We are in the Shetland Islands, a Scottish archipelago that is the United Kingdom’s northernmost domain. Molly is a river otter, even though she spends much of her time in the ocean (there aren’t enough rivers in the region to otherwise support otters’ feeding needs). River otters require freshwater to wash their coats, however, so the camera follows her upstream, too. Before that journey, we are lucky to see how she bathes (with colored balls) in the tub that Billy provides.

l-r: producer Jeff Wilson, director Charlie Hamilton James, Susan, and Billy, at SXSW 2024 @Christopher Llewellyn Reed

It’s on one of these inland trips that we meet her future mate, a male that Billy—perhaps with some jealously—names Bozo. Now we get to watch two otters at play. Double the trouble and double the fun. Add in the many sequences featuring Billy and Susan’s border collier, Jade, and the film has no shortage of delightful animal footage.

As many visual treasures of flora and fauna as Billy & Molly offers (and they are many, courtesy of the gorgeous images both above and below the water’s surface), what makes the film resonate is the human connection. Both Susan and Billy narrate the documentary in back-and-forth voiceovers, delivering meditative thoughts on life and love. Indeed, love is very much at the center of the narrative, whether relating to our central couple, or Billy and Molly. It’s what lends meaning to the entire affair, the story told through heart and humor. The lovely musical score, by composer Erland Cooper, serves as delicate accompaniment to the metaphysics of it all.

l-r: producer Jeff Wilson, director Charlie Hamilton James, Susan, and Billy, at SXSW 2024 @Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Eventually, through Billy’s ministrations, Molly improves and moves on, though returning for the occasional visit. This is how it should be. Billy does his part to save Molly, and Molly returns the favor by living as an otter was meant to live. How grateful we are to witness to their relationship. My only regret is that the movie is not even longer. 77 minutes is not quite enough!


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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