Cat Person, 2023.
Directed by Susanna Fogel.
Starring Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis, Liza Koshy, Fred Melamed, Isabella Rossellini, Isaac Powell, Josh Andrés Rivera, Michael Gandolfini, John Scherer, Donald Watkins, Christopher Shyer, Melissa Lehman, Jeremy Gill, Kyle Selig, Camille Umoff, Sammy Arechar, Max Jenkins, Zachary Mooren, and Liza Colón-Zayas.
When Margot, a college sophomore goes on a date with the older Robert, she finds that IRL Robert doesn’t live up to the Robert she has been flirting with over texts.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Cat Person wouldn’t exist.
The definition of catfish states to “lure (someone) into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona.” The key word there is persona, which can be fictitious without deception through physical appearance, hence director Susanna Fogel’s catchy title Cat Person. From a script by Michelle Ashford (and with its first two-thirds based on Kristen Roupenian’s short story, which not only went viral online but became controversial in unfortunate, unethical ways not accounted for in this adaptation or review, as it has no bearing on what is on screen here, but also an important detail that should be stressed), the film tells the story of a college sophomore girl’s relationship with a socially awkward, inexperienced, potentially fragile (leading to possibly dangerous) man roughly 10 years older than her.
She is Margot (Emilia Jones), working at a movie theater concessions stand without much love for American Hollywood classics such as Star Wars or Harrison Ford. Hell, she can’t even get the title Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom right. Subtitled, activist foreign films are more her speed. As many people do, she falls head over heels for a tall, bearded, attractive man. He is Robert (Nicholas Braun), who regularly visits and orders a large popcorn and Red Vines. In a terrible attempt at flirting, Margot pokes fun at Robert’s choice of movie theater candy (who can blame her), which he doesn’t appreciate, although it also doesn’t stop him from recognizing that she might be into him, subsequently asking for her number.
Given that Margot is a university student and heading home, she and Robert temporarily get to know each other through texting, which is occasionally a useful tool for unstable, nefarious, or simply weird men to hide some of their weaknesses and flaws while signal boosting a more likable version of themselves, such as a sensitive cat lover. Naturally, it also questions how much Margot is being told and seeing in these text message threads is real and what is a carefully calibrated catfish persona. It also serves as a somewhat scary window into how someone will give up pieces of themselves and bend over backward for someone who doesn’t seem all that interesting from our perspective but is conventionally attractive.
Margot also has a close friend (off and off campus) in Geraldine Viswanathan’s Taylor, who is a shut-in Reddit moderator for a feminist board suspecting that one of the other moderators is a traditional catfish, looking to spread gross male perspectives and misinformed statistics (such as the hard-to-believe claim that 75% of women enjoy receiving dick pictures.) This heavy online paranoia aligns with Margot’s in-person paranoia, often nervous that something horrific will happen while alone with Robert (questionably depicted through brief imagination sequences, when trusting audiences to pick up on her anxiety would have been far more effective.) As the blossoming relationship drives a wedge between their close friendship, the question becomes whether it’s wise, productive, and healthy to shelter inside Internet forums even if the real world, which absolutely could bring about harmful situations, likely offers more satisfaction.
That relationship between Margot and Robert is sweet until it becomes clear that the latter, who is 10+ years older, might have less romantic and sexual experience than the former. There is a brilliant decision here to utilize footage from some films Robert idolizes, framing them as harmful to his perception of what love is. Some people might cry heresy that depictions of romance in films such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones are put under a microscope, but it would also be ignorant not to accept that for as much entertainment these classics have provided, aspects of them evidently have stunted a generation of men in several mental areas. It is important to reckon with aspects of classic works that may have not aged well.
This comes to a head in a sex scene that is somehow one of the saddest yet simultaneously funniest ever put to screen, with Susanna Fogel bringing back the fantasy aspect to have Margot converse with a version of herself aware that she does not want this drunken sex with quite possibly a 34-year-old virgin who only has an understanding of love through questionable representation in cinema (THAT Blade Runner scene also pops up.) Meanwhile, the actual Margot insists that Robert means well and that his inexperience also means he would appreciate her and the sex more.
At least until Robert’s sexual impulses get the best of him, becoming increasingly rougher with Margot, no longer concerned with taking a second to ask how she feels or if she is comfortable, going as far as unknowingly repeatedly banging her head up against the bed frame while entering her from behind. Again, this is disturbing yet somehow hysterical clunky sex; it’s an impossible balancing act that Susanna Fogel threads. Margot is also afraid to hurt his feelings, bringing to the surface another contrast between her and her much more assertive friend Taylor. A case could also be made that Taylor’s mind has gone too far in the other direction, unconcerned with the feelings of others, even if it’s also true that Margot doesn’t owe Robert anything. Needless to say, men also need to handle accepting the truth with more grace and respect.
With that said, there is a third-act decision to break Cat Person down into a standard stalker thriller that slowly loses the richness and intrigue of these layered characters and themes. It also becomes highly apparent that the script is no longer pulling from the original short story. The choice eventually pays off for a bold, huge conversation starter swing of an ending. Still, it’s also difficult to shake the sensation that this film becomes something it shouldn’t have, even if the set pieces here are excellently crafted with palpable suspense.
Until that tipping point, Cat Person is a sharp study of the highs and lows of in-person and online connection, boundaries, and anxieties, with unpredictable plotting (even during its more formulaic finale) and its mind on what people find romantic and why. There is messy, flawed, human, and absorbing behavior from all involved, anchored by outstanding performances from Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com