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‘Cat Person’ Review: Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun in a High-Wire Adaptation of New Yorker’s Viral Short Story

Like most viral internet obsessions heralded as proof of the zeitgeist, Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” was more of a cultural litmus test than anything else.

The short story, published in The New Yorkers during the winter of 2017, was met with almost dizzying levels of fanfare and debate. On the one hand: applause for Roupenian’s blunt portrayal of 21st century dating, which reflected the confession of a New York magazine ‘Sex diaries’ column. On the other hand: eye-rolls aimed at the hype machine, criticism of the writer’s style, complaints filed by offended parties.

Cat person

It comes down to

Bound to start the discourse.

The story, a provocative tale of an exciting romance between a sophomore and a man more than a decade older than her, was obscured in the cacophony of discourse. The conversation – about the merits of the story, about why it provoked such a strong reaction, about what it says about communication – spiraled and the plot was lost. I suspect the same fate will befall Susanna Fogel’s tightrope adaptation, which premiered at Sundance this year and is bound to find a steady, devoted audience.

Cat person – directed by Fogel (co-writer op Smart book) and written by Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex) — knows his reputation and takes advantage of this self-awareness. Fogel and Ashford tease the latent horror in the story. The nightmares of dating, the fear of intimacy and the fear of trusting potential suitors become strange noises, shadowy figures and visions of inescapable situations. It’s a liberating approach that almost nervously sabotages the film. As a helicopter parent with access to Find My Friends, Cat person can’t help but keep checking in.

This mistrust of viewers is not apparent at first. Cat person opens by embracing the source material and showing off its genre aspirations. Margot (Emilia Jones) meets Robert (Nicholas Braun) at the town movie theater, where she tends the concession stand. Their first interaction reflects the shy coolness of the short story: Margot makes fun of Robert for buying Red Vines and he jokes that she’s bad at her job.

The film takes its course when Margot encounters a stray dog ​​in front of her student house. She tries to sneak the dog into her room. But the floor is hawkishly guarded by a condescending resident advisor, who, upon hearing Margot shuffling down the hall, reminds our protagonist that animals are not allowed. That night, Margot dreams about the dog howling outside her window and then tearing up her RA. This scene sets the mood and confirms the film’s intention to play with the boundary between real and unreal. Taking the technique of recent social horror movies – like Get out and Promising young womanCat person translates the terror of society’s problems into atmospheric fear.

The next night at work, Margot and Robert exchange numbers and begin their affair. They text every day; some messages are more worthless than others. Margot’s friend, Tamara (the ever-exciting Geraldine Viswanathan), an outspoken feminist who moderates internet boards, encourages her to set boundaries early and often. Margot doesn’t listen. The more she talks to Robert, the more her view of him splits: the man is both a charmer and a potential killer.

Scenes like the one where Robert drops off some food for Margot, who is working late in a campus lab, confirms this feeling. The young age of their relationship – mostly limited to texting – makes every interaction fraught with the danger of a fatal misstep. Little acts like how Robert gives her the treats or reaches for her arm trigger Margot’s anxiety as she imagines him lunging at or attacking her. DP Manuel Billeter, propelled by composer Heather McIntosh, creates a visual language that moves easily between calm and terror. jones (CODA) and Brown (Succession) reinforce the credibility of these moments; their performances cause the appropriate levels of vicarious embarrassment.

Hovering around these tight interactions that underline the failures and anxieties of cishet dating are the check-ins — the interludes that want to make sure we pick up what Fogel, Ashford and Roupenian put down. Monologues about ants given by Margot’s anthropology professor (a scene-stealing Isabella Rossellini) or fantasy therapy sessions with an unnamed analyst (Fred Melamed) loudly telegraph the stakes and package the themes too neatly. At their best, these are fun cameos; at worst, they are proof that the filmmakers don’t fully trust the viewer.

Roupenian’s story is most interesting when it exercises restraint and comfort with ambiguity. The violence of socialized gender roles feeds on gray areas and rejection. After Margot ends the chatter in the story, Robert’s initial sadness turns into an unsavory rage. He texts her again, each message more aggressive than the last until the story ends with him calling Margot a whore.

Cat person effectively reproduces that scene and those preceding it, but it doesn’t end there. A chilling third act adds an unusual coda – one that, after just one look, I’m still processing. The relief, however, lies in the way the filmmakers approach these tense scenes: Fogel and Ashford loosen their grip and finally trust us in our discomfort, drawing our own conclusions and sharpening our tools for discourse.

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