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  • Nate Adams

'Cat Person' Sundance Review: A suspenseful look at the dangers of modern dating


Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

 

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that modern dating (and how we perceive it) has forever changed. In “Cat Person,” a relationship blossoms after a chance encounter, but then explodes via text message until a very sinister (and bonkers) turn late in the third act. Based on one of the most viral short stories ever published by The New Yorker, Susanna Fogel’s “Cat Person,” (a world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) might need to come with a trigger warning in its tense dissection on what verbal (or non-verbal) consent means in this new dating ecosystem. 


The results all but speak for themselves: an edgy, balanced, and engaging thesis on the protocols and dialogue that happens around whether or not someone says one thing but means another. Headlined by “CODA” stand-out Emilia Jones and “Succession” royalty Nicholas Braun and written by Michelle Ashford (who adapted the New Yorker story by Kristen Roupenian), “Cat Person” manages to highlight all the best elements of the source material and should foster meaningful discussions, in particular around young women, on the exact parameters that come with dating; and how to ascertain if the person sitting across from you might not be as they appear. 


The story is fairly simple and one many have seen before: Jones plays Margot, a 20-year old college sophomore working at the local movie theater to help pay the bills. These early scenes don’t offer much situational action, though the screenplay expands upon the short story by fleshing out the characters and giving them meaningful backstories. Margot works behind the concession stand as her place of employment shows a variety of vintage classics including “American Graffiti” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” (where can I find this venue?). 


One night she converses with frequent moviegoer Robert (Braun) and begins a seemingly harmless yet flirtatious relationship. They exchange phone numbers and the two begin courting each other via text message. Ashfords scripting does a solid job at unspooling how young adults navigate the turmoils of dating, with spunky (and believable) conversational tidbits among peers as well as the pros and cons of dating someone who is clearly older. 


Nevertheless, Margot takes a flier on Robert despite the overall sense that something feels off, (her best friend hilariously played by Geraldine Viswanathan can already sense it) but her internal self, of which the film vividly depicts, encourages the date. What could go wrong? But it becomes clear that Robert isn’t a normal dude and “Cat Person” doesn’t deviate from the hard topics, including a bad sexual encounter that allows audiences to start piecing together the real narrative, and from there, things get intense. 


Like the short story, Foegel and co, not to mention the sensational casting that sees Jones and Bruan taking major leaps outside of their comfort zone, expertly conveys the aftermath and unexpected burden of an unsettling and cringe-inducing sexual experience. It’s evident Robert, in his needlessly pathetic texting exchanges or lack of obvious situational awareness, makes him someone to avoid. The film excels at presenting both sides of the dating spectrum and tacitly flips the script numerous times, subverting expectations and keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. It’s unpredictable. 


“Cat Person” won’t be for everyone and I’d wager some might find aspects of the film and its presentation offensive, but I welcomed its take on how a 20-year-old navigates a relationship that comes with unforeseen baggage and circumstance. The film never drags either, keeping the momentum flowing between sequences until a climax that goes absolutely nuts and one you must see to believe. 


Grade: B+ 


CAT PERSON world premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution. 




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