Back in 2017, a New Yorker short story became an overnight viral sensation. Cat Person became the magazine’s most-read piece of fiction thanks to social media, striking multiple chords with an audience all-too-familiar with the perils of modern dating. No surprise, then, that it’s been turned into a film, one that clearly aims to continue the debate originally started five years ago.
It also marks Emilia Jones’s return to Sundance after the triumph that was CODA, which debuted at the festival in 2021 and went on to win the Best Picture Oscar the following year. Here she plays student Margot, who works part time in an arthouse cinema. Over several evening shifts, she strikes up a conversation with Robert (Succession‘s Nicholas Braun), a shy film fan. He asks for her number, they text and eventually go out on a date, although his choice doesn’t bode well – a film she has no interest in seeing at her workplace. She’s constantly plagued by the idea that he might pose a threat and, when things become more intimate, Margot deeply regrets letting everything go so far. They split up – and that’s even more frightening.
In the hands of director Susanna Vogel and writer Michelle Ashford, it’s a film with something interesting to say about dating, although it’s not necessarily original. Fresh, one of last Sundance’s hits, explored similar territory – online dating is so full of pitfalls and can be more than a little scary, so why not go back to meeting somebody face to face? It’s more conventional but, in truth, it’s just as problematic as the apps. And, when texting comes into it – which it inevitably does – imaginations run riot, the possibilities for misunderstandings are limitless and, when a message doesn’t receive a reply, the tension is unbearable.
With its emphasis on tensions within relationships – the male/female dynamic especially – the film starts solidly enough, even though it over-cooks the idea with some heavy handed symbolism. But it’s not long before the narrative starts to spiral out of control and lose its sense of direction. Jones and Braun give appealing performances – he’s nerdy, clumsy and difficult to get to know, she’s vulnerable and doesn’t want to hurt his feelings – but Geraldine Viswanathan is sadly stuck with the poisoned chalice of playing Jones’s irritatingly strident friend.
Given the talent involved, Cat Person is simply a disappointment. Once it starts its rapid descent into chaos and muddle, the thought is inescapable that the original story has been over-stretched to make a feature. It should have stayed as a short.
Drama | Sundance Film Festival, premiered on 22 January 2023 | Dir. Susanna Fogel | Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis, Fred Melamed, Isabella Rossellini.