Promising Young Woman left a lasting impression on The Sundance Film Festival in 2020. Its essence has lingered in several film selections in the following years that cover similar themes and ideas. This year was no different with plenty of the selections tackling the same social commentary, using comparable lenses and story structures. The 2022 Sundance brought us Fresh, a dark, horror film which explored the modern heterosexual dating scene from the perspective of women. Premiering at this year’s festival, Cat Person (directed by Susanna Fogel with a screenplay by Michelle Ashford) seemed like it could be this year’s Fresh but was very different in its execution. Both films were heavy handed at times with their approach, but Cat Person relies more on its general mood and tone of fear and anxiety to sell its point rather than body horror and shocking grisly elements.
Cat Person already appears to be following in its original source material’s footsteps due to its divisive nature. When The New Yorker short story of the same title by Kristen Roupenian was published in 2017, it went viral, causing a mountain of discourse and debates; the film is sure to inspire the same once it has a wide release. It follows the brief relationship between Margot (Emilia Jones), a twenty-year-old college sophomore, and an older man named Robert (Nicholas Braun). The two meet at the movie theater where Margot works during one of her shifts. Their courtship ranges from flirtatious and sometimes cringey text message conversations to awkward in-person interactions that either have Margot on the verge of being completely terrified by Robert, wondering if she’s about to be murdered, or strangely endeared to him.
The film makes its intentions clear in the opening scene by flashing a well-known Margaret Atwood quote onto the screen: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” From there, it follows the original source material faithfully up until the short story’s very last word, but then an entire new third act and ending take place to fill in the runtime of a feature length film. The short story’s ending is a chilling gut punch while the film’s ending is more like chaotic and frustrating whiplash.
Like the short story, the film is entirely from Margot’s point of view, so we’re immediately immersed in the fear and anxiety-inducing everyday situations and dating scenarios that are, unfortunately, extremely relatable for a large majority of women. The film is able to ratchet up the tension and leans heavily into the thriller aspect of the story. The majority of Margot and Robert’s in-person interactions take place at night, which heightens the uneasiness and eeriness of some of Robert’s body language and words. It gives the film a more gritty and frightening tone at times.
Conversely, their easy banter via text is flashed up onto the screen inside familiar iMessage chat bubbles, appearing often during sunny days or in a well lit room when Margot is usually feeling more comfortable and safe. If it weren’t for those text conversations, you’d often wonder why Margot was even interested in Robert at all. In person, he often comes off as awkward and cringingly paternal, immediately calling her “sweetheart” upon their first romantic interaction and playfully chiding her about not knowing certain films and having to teach her things. Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun inhabit both of these dynamics effortlessly.
Even though Robert is extremely off putting as a character, it can be easier to empathize with Braun’s portrayal of the character than in the short story. Viewers are likely to remember other roles by Braun and might have difficulty separating them. He is tall and an imposing presence but also not very menacing. The beard that covers his face doesn’t hide the kind eyes and boyish face underneath. This sometimes works as a detriment to the film. Braun himself isn’t exactly as unappealing or creepy in the way the short story describes Robert.
Cat Person is buoyed not only by the excellent performances in the film by Jones and Braun but also Geraldine Viswanathan who plays Margot’s friend, Taylor, who is often a scene stealer. Her character is significantly more developed and involved in the film. Although Taylor is a good friend, she is often reluctant to let Margot make her own decisions, especially when it comes to dating. She wisely counsels Margot on many aspects of her dating life but is also completely consumed and frustrated by a faceless Reddit user while moderating a feminist subreddit. It sometimes feels like the film is trying to critique many different areas of online life outside of the dating scene. Throughout the film, we get the impression that technology, although helpful, can also be an insidious, double-edged sword.
Adaptations of books and short stories often lose the subtlety and nuance that makes them great, but this film is able to keep much of that nuance. Instead of relying on voiceover narration, Margot’s inner monologue and musings are turned into cutaway daydream sequences (that can sometimes be clunky), which are sprinkled throughout the film. During what has to be one of the most cringeworthy sex scenes on film, she dissociates, creating two on-screen Margots, who argue back and forth about whether or not to have sex. Even though it is painfully uncomfortable to watch, it is again, very (sadly) relatable and realistic. We can see Margot doing the mental calculations that many women go through before having sex or even while they’re in the midst of the act, resulting in her convincing herself to go through with it even when she doesn’t want to anymore because it’s then “too late” to change her mind. She sacrifices comfort and her ability to fully consent in favor of soothing Robert’s ego because she is afraid of him and sees that as the safest option for herself.
A constant throughline of the film is Margot wrestling with herself and second guessing her own choices; the power dynamics of heterosexual relationships weave in and out of the story. She is also dating an older man which doesn’t exactly place them on even footing, and she was socialized in a society that values men’s pleasure and desire over women’s and frowns upon women expressing their sexual needs and taking control of their sex lives. Even though she is open and willing to make herself vulnerable in certain situations about when and who she wants to have sex with, the gnawing thought of what might happen if she does reject Robert in certain situations constantly causes a kind of cognitive dissonance. She becomes intoxicated with the power that she holds when she does take control of the situation and reads the desire in Robert’s eyes. Her character is empowered in many ways, but the gender binary and frightening and dangerous realities of toxic masculinity and male fragility cause inner turmoil.
When the film sticks closely to the short story in the first half, it is gripping and sharp, but many different themes are introduced and seem to be competing for center stage throughout. The commentary from the original short story on the modern heterosexual dating scene, effects of communication breakdown, men’s inability to accept rejection, and the ethics of consent remain. In addition to the aforementioned commentary on how advancements in technology affect human interaction, there appear to be themes introduced on the impact of film depictions of romance and courtship on young boys and men, women’s paranoia, the ineptitude and ineffectualness of law enforcement in dealing with stalkers, victim blaming, and women supporting women. There are too many ideas happening at once that aren’t able to be fleshed out completely. It is a step forward to even bring some of these ideas up in the first place, but the film becomes too busy. The overall impact and message it was originally trying to convey gets muddled.
The scene of Margot and Taylor reading a stream of texts from Robert is perfectly shot and is just as chilling, if not more so, than the short story. Sitting alone in the dark, their faces illuminated by the glow of Margot’s phone, we see the unsettling messages flash onto the screen as Margot receives them, but after this scene, the third act begins and most of that strong build up from the first half starts to unravel.
Things become messier, and at points it feels like we are supposed to be blaming Margot for everything that happened and that we should be empathizing completely with Robert. Is that really what this film needed–the indignation and perspective of the male character? That only waters down the original intention of showing how real and scary this situation is for women. It allows men to feel more comfortable with dismissing these issues, brushing them off with the assumption that these are “problems” solely of women’s creation instead of self reflecting on how they actually interact with women. The new ending kicks the legs out from underneath the original story and also seems to be chastising women for “overreacting” and doing what they’ve been taught to do their entire lives which is, “it is your job to be wary of men and to protect yourself from them.”
Cat Person feels a bit more regressive in its thinking. It goes for the pop, thrill, and shock value of Promising Young Woman without closely examining its message and being too ambitious in its execution. At this point in time, shouldn’t we be critiquing and questioning the system/gender binary in place that created this volatile dating scene and also how we socialize boys and girls? With women’s paranoia being a direct product of this system, it doesn’t exactly make sense to question whether it’s justified or not or to even poke fun at it. This type of thinking only takes us backwards. Hopefully, this film will still inspire reflection and dialogue about how men interact with and treat women that won’t just devolve into the same petty blame game and debates that happened in 2017 when the short story was published.
Despite its best efforts to convey the horror of the original short story, the film adaptation of Cat Person falls short. There are things the film does well like developing the female friendship in the story more, bringing up the toxic aspects of the modern heterosexual dating scene, and also addressing the tightrope that women in particular walk in the realm of sexual consent while dating men; It is also an entertaining and darkly funny film that is worth watching, especially for the first half, but there is plenty of room for improvement.
Cat Person had its World Premiere in the Premieres section of Sundance Film Festival 2023.
Director: Susanna Fogel
Writer: Michelle Ashford (Based on the short story by Kristen Roupenian)
A Flawed But Engaging Exploration Of Modern Dating
When I’m not busy daydreaming or having an existential crisis, I can usually be found watching a movie or TV, listening to music or a podcast, or with my nose in a book.