What we have in Cat Person is a failure to communicate. In just about everything. Or perhaps society is to blame. Online society mostly. Either way, Cat Person takes Kristen Roupenian’s viral, quite insightful short story of the same name and creates a white feminist suburban nightmare.
A realistic on-screen psychological study of gendered power dynamics is always difficult to portray for their innate subtlety and the lack of any concrete solution. The #MeToo backlash is far easier to understand when no march or movement could offer an equivalent to the Civil Rights Act with some semblance of legal consolation. The problems inherent in the dynamics that brought the hashtag itself into existence are often impossible to legislate by their very nature, and often the only solutions lie in collective shifts in our thought and mores.
That means uncomfortable conversations that dissect and deconstruct many of the societal norms we take for granted. Or, if you’re a Cat Person, throwing thought out the window and opting for violence instead.
“Cat Person can only use its college setting to include laughable dialogue of how an ant queen rules over her colony”
Like its source material, 20-year-old college sophomore Margot (Emilia Jones) still works at a movie theatre, which is ground zero for some of the laziest commentaries I’ve seen in a work that posits itself as serious and thoughtful. In its effort to prove itself as a serious feminist study, Cat Person drops references to 50’s sci-fi bursting with She-Creatures, “tall, dark, and problematic” Judd Apatow caricatures that (in)famous Margaret Atwood quote, and the Into the Woods musical.
To sustain such a frenzy, you need to have characters who are also in the category of Too Much, those chosen few who are capable of believably dropping references at the pace of a Gilmore Girls convo. But Cat Person is a Serious Work, and Margot’s believability lies in how she diminishes herself the way most girls her age often do after they meet a man outside of the safety of home and neighbourhood, especially when he falls into the demographic she’s been socialized to seek approval from. And Robert (Nicholas Braun) fits the bill as an older white man whose show of confidence is more than enough to make Margot doubt herself.
In fact, Margot is more attracted to a man’s desire for her than to the man himself and is unable to see that the reason she feels more comfortable with his text messages is that he too feels the need to maintain an image of the cool, suave persona of his own very gendered idol, Harrison Ford. It is only when Margot chooses to have truly awful sex rather than express her own desires that she realizes.
This is where Masters of Sex screenwriter Michelle Ashford shines, as Margot dissociates from her body and has an inner dialogue with herself, explaining why “it’s just easier to get it over with”. There are other sparks of potential insight in the build-up, at least when Margot’s desire for safety and Robert’s desire to be her ideal collide in imagined scenarios where the worst potential for violence unfolds or when she imagines a more sensitive, caring Robert in a therapy session.
Those glimmers are quickly snuffed out since Cat Person can only use its college setting to include laughable dialogue of how an ant queen rules over her colony or stories of ancient societies offering up women as literal human sacrifices. If you think that’s the definition of cringe, just wait until Margot heads to her cushy home in the suburbs, where an even more outlandish scenario awaits: Margot’s mom (Hope Davis) successfully pressures her into singing My Heart Belongs to Daddy with her for her stepfather’s birthday.
“Such scenarios, laughable as they are, are what remains in a film which can’t offer or imagine much in the way of insightful exploration…”
Such scenarios, as ridiculous as they are, are what remain in a film that has little to offer or imagine in the way of an insightful exploration of the lives of Gen Z women, starting with the decision to turn a quiet, introspective piece on modern miscommunication into a thriller. The rest follows suit, with Geraldine Viswanathan shoehorned into a particularly thankless role of best friend and police indifference voiced by a mean cop who is both female and black.
The last third is where Cat Person goes completely off the rails, with the Battle of the Sexes ending in a cleansing fire where the only solution is to trust those poor, misunderstood men. And in classic fashion, the only question is whether anything was learned at all. College, amirite?