Dating can be really awkward, especially when both sides are not experienced and are doing the best they can to not hurt each other’s feelings. In today’s age of dating, where half of it lives online through throwaway flirty text messages, the lines are more blurred than ever before. Intention, motivation, anxiety, none of those things can be fully conveyed to the other person without proper communication. But how can you communicate properly when you just met one another?
That is the uncomfortable gray area first explored in Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story, titled “Cat Person.” It was a short and efficient read, capturing all the cringeworthy moments that seem to last an eternity on the spot, only to descend into something more terrifying. Most of all, that story ends on a stomach-churning note full of open interpretation, depending on which part of the story you found to be most relatable.
The challenge with Cat Person the film is that writer Michelle Ashford and director Susanna Fogel need to take Roupenian’s short story and implement a three-act structure onto it, and the results are a bit hit and miss. What the filmmakers do have as an advantage is the quick easy premise, that of Margot (CODA breakout Emilia Jones) taking an immediate liking to a tall older man named Robert (Succession’s Nicholas Braun), who often comes to the movie theater she works at to watch movies, making the same concession order of a large popcorn with Red Vines. What starts as awkward banter and casual insults soon becomes more flirtatious, as they exchange numbers and begin to text, and we’re left wondering whether they could actually become… a thing together.
The problem is Robert is extremely bad at being a guy to go on a date with – his choice of words bear a loud ring of “too fast too soon,” his timing of dark jokes is awful, and he absolutely fails at reading the room and thinking for Margot. That being said, he has moments where it’s obvious he’s trying, and that’s what keeps Margot interested. Maybe it’s more of a curiosity? Though the writing doesn’t ever pinpoint the rationale behind Margot’s decision-making, Fogel’s use of quick-cut fantasy scenes offer a playful and useful window into her psyche. It’s clear she is being (understandably) ruled by her fears, and she can’t think clearly because her mind is already playing out different kinds of scenarios in her head. After all, Margot is often alone with Robert when they see each other. Nobody else is around to witness anything. For all we know, Robert could be a serial killer, and the only way Margot can “keep calm” is to openly joke about it.
Margot’s anxiety and uncertainty doesn’t get better when her friend Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan) is around. Though half of the advice Taylor gives is indeed helpful and genuinely careful (she’s the type who can spot red flags from a mile away) the other half of her words comes with an inherent bias that every man is hellbent on confronting her. So in many ways, Margot is going at this alone.
Jones gives an exceptional performance highlighting such struggles in navigating these muddy waters, and with Braun being an equally terrific acting partner who toes the line between sweet and creepy, we can only sit and cringe and hope Margot makes the smart decision to protect herself. Though Fogel has a confident handling of the quick-cut fantasy sequences (one involving a therapist and another involving Margot literally talking to herself during sex are fantastic highlights), the tonal shifts don’t always land perfectly, as Cat Person often struggles in its genre identity of awkward drama vs. full-on serial killer thriller.
Whenever the film finds its footing, it works wonders, even if you’re constantly worrying if the script would suddenly veer off. Certainly, that stress and discomfort is captured with disturbing accuracy – it is easily the film’s biggest strength. But then the film needs to ramp up to a finale, and this is where Ashford and Fogel both take a gamble on the third act. While “Cat Person” the short story intentionally ends on an anticlimactic note for the reader to ponder just what happened, Cat Person the film uses that ending as the end of Act 2.
With that narrative decision, Cat Person attempts to use its third act to throw a bunch of character perspectives together for one big confrontation, and the results can be mixed. On one end, Jones and Braun both get to dial their already terrific performances up to eleven, as both characters try to make their cases heard. But once things get physical and dangerous, the film unfortunately devolves into something that would more likely play out in one of Margot’s scenarios than in real life.
The question is whether or not this is all in service of something new the filmmakers want to say. Though I do believe that Ashford and Fogel are confident in their voices, the end product still somewhat strips the original story of its ambiguity, through no fault of their own. This is merely the result of a story working much better on one medium than the other. Perhaps Cat Person would’ve worked better as a short film, strictly from a narrative structure sense. But for what we got, this should suffice.
Cat Person is screening in the Premieres section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute