This review is part of our coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: In 2017, Kristen Roupenian regaled The New Yorker readers with a startling, elliptical short story called “Cat Person,” about a bad date gone worse between a college sophomore named Margot and a thirtysomething loser named Robert, a tale of mixed messages and scrambled signals and questionable lines around consent.
It lit up the Internet, crystallizing the thoughts of so many women who’d suffered their own uncomfortable dating stories (and, at the height of the #MeToo era, were reliving them on the daily as one celebrity after another was found guilty of transgressions ranging from serial sexual assault to poorly followed or communicated boundaries).
The voyeuristic appeal of Roupenian’s story lies in its ambiguity: Is Robert a licentious creep? Or just a guy who doesn’t know how to act around a woman? Or does it even matter? And that’s the starting point for Susanna Fogel (director of The Spy Who Dumped Me and co-writer of Booksmart)’s adaptation of the story, which uses expressive cinematic grammar to express Margot (CODA‘s Emilia Jones)’s caginess towards Robert (Succession‘s Nicholas Braun, apparently cornering the market on skinny dorks in adaptations of viral Internet stories). And it works, at least for a while — until the real short story stops and it’s time to get rid of the ambiguity.
Tall, Dark, and Problematic: Fogel’s approach to the material is laid bare in the opening text, that infamous quote from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Indeed, Fogel and screenwriter Michelle Ashford smartly spend the first two acts cloaking Emilia and Robert’s first brushes with dating in the cinematic grammar of horror.
DP Manuel Billeter frames Margot as isolated in the frame, small, with the tall-as-a-weed Braun towering over her in reverse shots. When her imagination about Robert’s motives goes into overdrive, the lighting grows ever moodier, bathing him in the red of a college darkroom or the backlit menace of a car window that traps her in with him. She imagines him dying in various ways when she wants to ditch him, or sitting in on his therapy sessions when she imagines him to be a romantic whose awkward advance she’s shirked.
It’s this negotiation between Robert’s real and imagined intentions, filtered almost entirely through Margot’s subjective perspective, that makes Cat Person‘s first two acts as effective as they are. Granted, Margot remains a bit of a blank slate, a canvas on which we can project all manner of things about modern dating dynamics: she’s young and inexperienced, but confident enough to want sex and pursue it even with someone she may not be all that crazy about. If nothing else, CODA proved Jones can carry a film like this, and her assured mixture of curiosity and paranoia helps carry the day through Cat Person‘s two hours.