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Sundance 2023 Review: Cat Person – “Some elements I loved, and others I just very much disliked.”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Cat Person opens with a quote from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid men will kill them.” These carefully chosen words which preface this story are ominous, and embody the overall feel of this film perfectly.

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While working at the concession stand at a movie theatre Margot (CODA’s Emilia Jones) spots Robert (Succession’s Nicholas Braun) and immediately texts her best friend.  “Older guy incoming, looks like best friend in Apatow movie.”  As he orders his large popcorn and red vines, the two have an awkward interaction, but eventually they exchange numbers.  

Margot gets caught up in their flirtatious texting, and in this space she feels safe, both emotionally and physically.  It’s when they begin to meet in person that Margot’s imagination starts to run wild and she begins to picture the horrible things that could happen when the two of them are alone.  Robert could assault her, she imagines as the two get trapped in her university lab.  He could take her somewhere and murder her, she thinks as the doors on his car automatically lock as he drives away.  As her distrust and unease grow, and red flags potentially mount, Margot is caught between this person she adored in the online world, and the truth that in person maybe he isn’t all she thought.  Or is he exactly what she has been imagining?

It’s pretty obvious from the beginning of the film that Margot is a character who likes to think the best of people, but whose mind quickly reminds her of the worst-case scenario.  One of her first encounters is when she attempts to shelter a stray dog, a Rottweiler.  Now this breed is not inherently mean, I’ll say that from the get go, but the choice of dog is not by chance here.  Margot looks past this dog’s stigmatized exterior and brings him in, only to dream later that night of the canine committing a grizzly Cujo-esque murder.  It’s the first instance we see Margot’s conflicted way of looking at the world.  She is a hope for the best, prepare for the worst sort of person. 

As such, Margot has a degree of street smarts.  She messages her roommate, Taylor, (Geraldine Viswanathan) to let her know when she’s walking home and to alert the campus police if she’s not there in five minutes.  She jokingly also informs Taylor when she meets Robert for one of the first times, “Robert’s here, but what if he’s a serial killer?”  It’s a comment made in jest, but also one that adds a feeling of safety for Margot that someone knows where she is.  These are the types of things that Cat Person does well.  It creates a character that leans on experiences that many women have had.  For as much as Margot’s visions of horror are the worst-case scenario, they are just extensions of every-day concerns so many of us have.  

So it’s kind of disappointing then when Cat Person strays from its source material, a 2017 New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian, and seems to contradict all the messaging to this point.  Margot starts making one bad decision after another, something that feels out of character considering that up until a certain point she seems to covet her sense of safety.  

Fleshed out to a two-hour run time by director Susanna Fogel (co-writer of Booksmart) working from an adapted script by Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), the final act of the film, completely original content, leans heavily into thriller/horror territory and is messy and misses the point.  At times it felt like it was trying to restore faith in Robert’s character while making Margot and the way she has escalated her fear through her imaginings the true dangerous entity.  It comes off feeling like the messaging is asking whether a woman should ever trust their intuition in the first place, like all that society has taught us about predicting dangerous situations is wrong.

Emilia Jones yet again proves herself as Margot and Cousin Greg (dammit, I mean Nicholas Braun… I always do that) embodies Robert with enough ambiguity for us to question if he is truly unlikeable.  Together they provide plenty of cringe-worthy, awkward moments, including the most (intentionally) awful on-screen kiss you’ve ever seen.  These sorts of moments will likely speak to a lot of people, just as the original short story did, when it comes to dating, gender politics and power dynamics.  

This is the film I struggled with the most at Sundance, because some elements I loved, and others I just very much disliked.  Cat Person had the potential to fully examine the effects of societal conditioning on how men and women see and react to one another, to really dig into that Atwood quote that starts everything off.  However, this film adaptation of Cat Person is likely to be divisive in the way it concludes, in an over-the-top melee that questions which of these characters is really worse and who has committed the worse offences.  It felt like the filmmakers just felt the need to provide a more cinematic climax than the short story provided, and instead, they threw all the source material aside to come to a terribly messy conclusion.  

Cat Person premiered January 21, 2023 at the Sundance Film Festival.

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