In the wickedly ambiguous Sundance conversation-starter “Cat Person,” two singles a half-generation apart see their relationship quite differently. Even the word “relationship” is relative. Margot (Emilia Jones), a 20-year-old sophomore, works the concession stand at a repertory theater, where she flirts with a patron (Nicholas Braun of “Succession”) who looks kinda like a young Nicolas Cage. Not “Valley Girl” young. More like “Wild at Heart”-era Nicolas Cage, minus the charisma. Margot describes him as “tall, dark and … problematic” to her roommate. Still, she’s intrigued enough to give him her number. The two start to text, sending what could aptly be called “mixed messages,” and things get complicated.
A co-writer on Gen Z coming-of-ager “Booksmart,” director Susanna Fogel likes complicated. Back in 2017, “Cat Person” originated as a fiction entry in The New Yorker, but quickly became something more. Long before anyone thought of adapting it to the big screen, Kristen Roupenian’s short story struck a nerve with the culture, which was already grappling with its understanding of seduction and consent. “Cat Person” ran two months after the magazine published Ronan Farrow’s exposé on Harvey Weinstein, and mere weeks before a woman accused Aziz Ansari of “the worst night of my life.”
Open to conflicting interpretations from any number of perspectives, “Cat Person” invited debate, engaging directly with the gray areas of modern dating. Fogel and screenwriter Michelle Ashford (“Masters of Sex”) make the surprising choice of treating the material more as genre fare than as a traditional rom-com, where the meet-cute isn’t and what follows is no one’s idea of a date movie. Three years after “Promising Young Woman,” they’ve given us a film that’s funny in places, horrifying in others and all but destined to be a reference point in future discussions about courtship — a notion that has here devolved to dropping by campus late at night with Fruity Pebbles and a Slurpee. We’re a long way from “Say Anything,” but a lot closer to reality, and that’s saying something.
Near the beginning, Fogel features a quotation from “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood that hits so squarely on the nose, it nearly gives the film a black eye: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Though some might beg to differ with that assessment, as written the movie starts to feel like an exercise in proving Atwood right. To that end, Margot is prone to “Ally McBeal”-style flashes of fantasy and fear, cutting to some extreme scenario — like being attacked by Robert, the Red Vines-buying movie buff she’s been texting — only to snap abruptly back to sanity. Typically played for laughs, that sitcom cliché takes on a fresh edge the way Fogel uses it, the movie’s strategy of indulging Margot’s “what if he’s a serial killer?” anxieties. Repeat the trick enough, and audiences start to get skeptical.
That’s a healthy attitude to have here. Fogel presents “Cat Person” as Margot’s subjective experience, which involves a certain lack of self-awareness. Margot initiates the flirtation at the concession stand, semi-stalks him from the back of the theater and skips past the games of hard to get, trading hundreds of text messages, which multiply across the screen like bacteria in a petri dish. Robert is older, knows what he wants and has a full-time job, characteristics that suggest a power differential. But youth and beauty give Margot an edge she’s only just discovering, and this guy — awkward, sort of pathetic, a bad kisser — is like an experiment.
Ashford has done an admirable job of expanding the short story, adding a wild last act and fleshing out Margot’s world to include a bestie (Geraldine Viswanathan), a mother (Hope Davis), an R.A. (Camille Umhoff) and a teacher (Isabella Rossellini) who serve as sounding boards for some of her doubts. Rossellini in particular is a nice touch: a professor who sees potential in Margot, who’s otherwise pretty hard on herself, and whose expertise in the mating habits of certain insects taps into the art-film legend’s “Green Porno” project.
Margot may work in a movie theater, but she doesn’t seem remotely interested in movies. Or extracurriculars of any kind. In many respects, her personality feels still-unformed, but then, that’s what college is for. She’s figuring things out, and her sexual agency is one of the elements being workshopped. What happens when Margot goes away for break? How to keep Robert interested … but not too interested? She takes an intimate selfie, gets no response, then backtracks. It’s tough for movies to convey the nuances of screen-to-screen communication — the way that micro-pauses, punctuation, pop-culture references all matter. “Cat Person” captures those dynamics without boring us with their banter. The pair’s tentative in-person interactions are even sharper.
The film’s tone is light, but laced with suspicion and potential menace. Meanwhile, the title refers to the idea of Robert that Margot constructs in her head, extrapolated from a flurry of messages they exchange over a matter of days. When she finally goes to his place, she sees no sign of the two cats he’d mentioned. It’s a grown-up home, yet oddly immature as well. His unkempt bedroom is nearly a deal-breaker, as are his clumsy attempts at foreplay. And yet, she doesn’t leave.
The ensuing scene is the most divisive part of Roupenian’s story. Some readers have interpreted it as assault. The script invents a fascinating device, giving Margot an out-of-body double. “Do we want to do this?” her conscience/subconscious asks. Jones, who starred in “CODA,” can be coy one moment, caustic the next. Her character is composed of intriguing contradictions, which come off as all the more human in the actor’s hands. “It’s just easier to get it over with,” she tells herself. The movie’s risky ending commits to further exploring the way Margot and Robert experienced the situation completely differently, and how things escalate instead of ending after the texting stops.
If the movie’s sex scene reveals a man afraid of being laughed at, its daring third act confronts a different terror: men’s fear of being accused. Fogel takes that anxiety to outrageous extremes, putting Margot in real peril, but in the end Robert feels endangered too, and the casting of Braun (who’s less threatening than readers will have imagined) makes sense when the tables turn. The cultural conversation has evolved fast enough to give creeps pause and honorable men whiplash, and “Cat Person” will likely prove an important catalyst for further analysis. It’s a squirmy, uncomfortable movie no teenager wants to watch with their mom, but maybe everyone should — required viewing for freshman year.