Sundance 2023: Cat Person, by David Bax
When it references the saying–often misattributed to Margaret Atwood–that “men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them,” I immediately started to worry that Susanna Fogel‘s Cat Person was going to be less an adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s excellent short story than a self-conscious entry into the exhausting discourse the story kicked off. Luckily, that’s not the case (making the inclusion of that quote kind of annoyingly superfluous). Like Roupenian’s writing, the film is an engrossing yarn with an eye for character detail.
Short stories are often better source material for feature films than novels. The filmmakers can expand upon the original ideas instead of having to contract them into a standard cinematic form. That’s how Fogel and screenwriter Michelle Ashford, while mostly sticking to Roupenian’s brand of dry, dark comedy in this tale of a college freshman who dates a lonely man more than ten years her senior, also branch out into other genres, most notably horror, as in a sequence in which Margot (Emilia Jones) finds herself trapped in a small space with Robert (Nicholas Braun).
Braun plays Robert realistically, as a kind of high-functioning shy adolescent. The only potential problem here is that this makes him more red flags than charms. It’s hard to see the appeal. This is where Jones’ performance shines. It’s not just that Margot’s got some red flag of her own (theater kids… shudder). It’s that Jones lets us see how her insecurities and self-esteem allow her to project onto Robert the person that can provide her the validation she needs. Another pitfall avoided.
Fogel’s previous feature directorial credits (The Spy Who Dumped Me and the quietly sublime Life Partners) are comedies and, though Cat Person is less overtly comedic than either of those, she still puts her skills to great use. Margot and Robert’s first date is so masterfully uncomfortable that it will be experienced with an audience so that you can laugh in mutual horror instead of hiding your face behind a couch cushion at home.
Already, I predict that the most controversial part of Cat Person will be the third act, which takes place after the events of the short story have concluded. Fogel and Ashford take a leap into the thriller genre than some may find preposterous or cheap. Instead, I say they’re following their own muse, using Roupenian’s abrupt ending as a kind of exquisite corpse prompt. Just as Margot and Robert have diverging accounts of what transpired in their brief relationship, Cat Person the movie offers its own version of what could have happened next. Ultimately, it’s a movie about narratives, the fun ones and the hurtful ones.