I’m a happily married man, and have been for nearly 24 years. Decades have passed since I’ve had to be part of “the dating scene.” And never have I felt happier about that reality than I was while watching Cat Person, director Susanna Fogel’s consistently unnerving thriller about the perils of text-chain dating that burrows under the skin through its paranoid vibe, and has the power to scare you off of human contact… forever. Cat Person does for modern dating what Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction did for extramarital affairs in 1987. (And keep your eyes on the background of Fogel’s picture for a tip of the cap to Attraction, solidifying the inspiration).
Cat Person began its life as a short story published in The New Yorker in 2017. I wasn’t familiar with the piece, despite it being a viral sensation. That was for the best. Having read it now, I can tell you that Susanna Fogel adheres closely to the text when adapting this story for the screen, right down to tiny details like a novelty lighter shaped like a frog with a cigarette in its mouth. But Cat Person plays better when you don’t know the directions in which it heads, keeping you edgy with deep bouts of apprehension for the horrors that might befall the main character, Margot.
To that end, stop reading now if you know nothing about Cat Person. Going into this cold is my strongest recommendation.
At the beginning, Margot (CODA sensation Emilia Jones) works the concession stand at an arthouse movie theater. That’s where she meets Robert (Nicholas Braun), an older patron with an unassuming demeanor who Margot appears to be interested in. She casually flirts. She watches him in the auditorium, and imagines them striking up a conversation. When he actually does ask for her number, she provides it, and their text relationship begins.
From here on out, I’m keeping plot details to a minimum. Margot and Robert’s social connection progresses, then regresses, and the motivations behind each mood swing can be interpreted different ways by each party. In one telling scene, Robert reveals to Margot how he interpreted one of her text replies, and it’s so totally different from how Emilia Jones and Susanna Fogel led us to believe Margot interpreted the interaction, we begin to question who might be misleading whom.
Allow me to show my age one more time, because Cat Person deliberately paints modern dating as a nightmare balancing act frequently conducted through technology meant to draw us closer together, but usually ends up establishing walls. In Cat People, the sound of an arriving text message can send a shiver of dread down your spine.
Fogler does make one interesting decision in Cat Person that only occasionally works (and sometimes took me out of the narrative). She portrays Margot as an unreliable narrator, establishing her vivid imagination by showing us scenes that are happening in her head, before pulling back to reveal that, surprise, she was only allowing her mind to wander. Only, Fogler overdoes the gimmick in the early stages of the film, so I too often doubted Margot’s perception of what we were being shown, in case it was another fabrication. This works against Cat Person when it depends on us trusting Margot’s POV of Robert and his actions. But the movie shakes that uncertainty over the course of its stronger second hour.
Not knowing the pending plot twists, I can say that Cat Person takes a while to get to its hook, though Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun both are wonderful in their complicated roles that sometimes need to be endearing, sometimes need to be creepy, and sometimes even need to be endearingly creepy. Jones, particularly, strikes a spectacularly delicate balance with the material that keeps our allegiance to Margot teetering, adding fuel to the film’s already roaring fire of paranoia.
When Cat People reaches the final line of the short story, the movie still has about 20 to 30 minutes remaining. How Fogler decides to end this dance will keep you riveted. The social cringe that is established in the first hour ends up being necessary for the chaos of the film’s second hour. Now excuse me while I go smash my cellphone into a thousand pieces, just to be safe.
More from Sundance 2023:
Jonathan Majors is earning raves for Magazine Dreams.
The Indigo Girls receive an empowering documentary.
Our upcoming 2023 movies list, which has some Sundance films on it.