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Barely Legal

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Cat Person (2023)

For someone who was a feminist in the ’90s, it is horrifying to wonder if Katie Roiphe might have had a point, but “Cat Person” will do that to you. If you are fortunate enough not to know who that is: in 1993 Ms. Roiphe published “The Morning After,” a book which smugly informed the world that most young women, specifically college students, who thought they’d been raped had actually just had bad sex and, thanks to feminism, didn’t know it. It was reactionary and unkind, primarily a retort to being raised by a prominent second-wave feminist (Anne Roiphe), but also as the attention-seeking little sister to a much better writer (Emily Carter, whose “Glory Goes and Gets Some” is an underappreciated gem), but she didn’t half build a career on it. As a career choice, it was an excellent decision, because the sexual choices of young women are basically the issue. Abortion, gender roles, sexual preferences, childcare, property rights, equal pay for equal work, educational choices, you’re not going out dressed like that: they all boil back to how the bodies of young women are controlled.

Kristen Roupenian, whose 2017 The New Yorker viral smash short story was the basis for this film, hit the mother lode with the story of a college student, whose bad date with an older man was open to a multiverse worth of interpretations. The discourse spawned a billion tweets, a million hot takes and enough interest to make this movie and bring it to the Sundance Film Festival. As written by Michelle Ashford and directed by Susanna Fogel, the movie “Cat Person” manages to expand upon the complexity of the original story while also being very much its own thing. Unfortunately, on every level, it is not quite a success.

This is partially due to a problem of the characterization. Margot (Emilia Jones) has the dangerous combination of entitlement and naivety college sophomores are well known for, although the brief glimpse we’re given of her creepy family life only begs the question as to why, with that much money, she’s working a movie theater concession stand in the first place. Her best friend Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan) is the exhausting moderator of a feminist forum on Reddit, and highly invested, to the point of codependency, in how Margot moves through the world. Margot has spent a lot of time terrifying herself with all the bad things that can happen to women, but for someone so prone to panic attacks and convinced she’s in physical danger at all times, she does a surprising amount of walking alone in deserted areas at night with her earbuds in. Manuel Billeter’s forthright cinematography makes plain her fear’s all in her head, a message reinforced by Heather McIntosh’s score. Yet Margot gives Robert (Nicholas Braun) her number after only a few encounters; and her eagerness to develop a relationship with him over text despite barely knowing him in real life is a common bad habit, thinking that texting a stranger your every passing thought will make getting to know them easier later on.

This is maybe the first movie to ever get texting right, both in mood and in how assumptions can happen in conversation that only goes through a screen. A lot depends on how well you know the person you’re texting (the sarcastic yet fearful yet mutually reassuring texts between Taylor and Margot are an important part of their friendship); and “Cat Person” does a remarkable job in showing how those conversational nuances build and shift. It means that when Margot and Robert actually meet up, they’ve spent so long texting they’ve each built an idea of the other that has little bearing on the genuine person next to them. And it’s that gap between perception and reality that allows things to spiral out of control.

Mr. Braun is the perfect choice for this role. As an actor he has developed an unusual and distinctive niche – he is a very tall man, whose pathetic characters are extra pathetic because someone of that physicality should have an innate confidence (compare Mr. Braun to Armie Hammer, who is of a similar height). This is also different to being self-confident while doing everything possible to minimize other people’s reaction to your height, a personality type only Julian Looman has captured in his TV work. In “Zola,” Mr. Braun’s depiction of a dumbass too stupid to realize his girlfriend was a prostitute gave that unhappy exploitation story a lighter edge it sorely needed. Here, his Robert is enough of a sad sack that Margot feels that allowing him to spend time with her young, hot, educated self is a gift she is condescending to give him. Robert doesn’t quite see things that way, of course, and is hurt Margot doesn’t, or can’t, appreciate what he has to offer. There’s also no obvious threat in him, except in his size. But when they are alone in his house, and Margot realizes she doesn’t want to be there, her thrilling sense of superiority – and the implications of Robert’s body – keep her mouth shut.

The way the scene is staged, with one Margot on the side of the room discussing what’s happening with the Margot on the bed, is an outstanding personification of difficult thoughts in a tricky situation; and Ms. Jones does a wonderful job here of depicting Margot’s double-think as she goes through the motions. The choice of the Depeche Mode song to soundtrack this is quite impressive, too. But it’s after this bravura sequence that the movie slips its brakes, mainly because it doesn’t know how to control Margot’s overwhelming refusal to accept the consequences. It’s irritating to say it, but Ms. Roiphe would have a field day. The whole thing could have been a camp masterpiece – why cast Isabella Rossellini as a college professor crying over an ant colony that Margot and Robert accidentally destroy, if not to have some fun with it? – but instead it plays things absolutely straight. This shows a level of respect for Margot’s stubbornness that is probably unwarranted; and a more interesting and maybe more realistic movie would have taken all this a little less seriously. It was just one date, after all; and from personal experience it takes more than one bad date to be able to write a book called “You Ruin It When You Talk.” Even Taylor’s strangely enthusiastic interference is designed to protect Margot in ways that are both unnecessary and undeserved. What does she really need protecting from, especially when it’s so clear everything that follows has evolved from Margot’s paranoia and is therefore entirely her fault?

Until the final sequence, that is. The subtlety and shifting power dynamics (age, class, appeal, privilege, achievement and self-esteem) of the relationship between Margot and Robert are suddenly discarded in favor of every possible lowest-common-denominator cliché about men and women. It all builds to a supremely silly, one-sided resolution that neatly lets Margot off the hook. The laws of money and privilege make that completely believable, but it’s a vicious cheat and the movie knows it. It also makes an unpleasant parallel to the real-life backlash Ms. Roupenian experienced after publication, which is an unkind choice at the very best.

That embarrassing final sequence is so jarring and its message so mixed that it ruins the movie. So why is it there? Why did Ms. Fogel decide to undermine her own message about how complicated human interaction is for such a Hollywood ending? Why make it clear whether Robert is acting out of misguided awkwardness or misogynistic spite? Why define if Margot is an entitled manipulator or an immature kid anxious about sex? Why rip out all the power of the “Cat Person” story by making explicit all the nuances everybody had such a great time discussing? Why boil everything down to the basics every society can agree on: the bodies of young women need to be controlled by other people?

Why do the bodies of young women need to be controlled by other people anyway? Well: Societies only exist because children keep being born into them. If a woman opts out, on any level, of even potentially adding new children to a society, the entire basis of the society is threatened (and the people who’ve opted in are usually personally insulted, to the point that they forget men’s choices have an equal part to play in this). Once you realize that, it makes a lot of sense that something as small as one bad date can be a microcosm for an entire society; and how the ill-advised actions of one paranoid young woman can reflect some truths that aren’t normally said out loud. The shame is that “Cat Person” buys into gender clichés with that appalling ending and warps a unique interpersonal experience into something so average it’s actually boring. We all, no matter our gender, deserve an awful lot better than this.


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