Cat Person is an uneven, personality-confused thriller spearheaded by a committed Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun: Sundance Film Festival Review

  • Peter Gray
  • January 27, 2023
  • Comments Off on Cat Person is an uneven, personality-confused thriller spearheaded by a committed Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun: Sundance Film Festival Review

It goes without saying that the topical interest in Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 short story “Cat Person”, which ran in The New Yorker, before going viral online, is ripe for a filmmaker to adapt and expand.  Unfortunately, director Susanna Fogel can’t quite secure a grip on proceedings, clumsily handling the film’s tone and undermining its central performances in the process.

Cat Person follows 20-year-old college sophomore Margot (a committed Emilia Jones), who happens to meet the tall, handsome Robert (an even more committed Nicholas Braun) as she handles the concession line at her local move house; she initially describes him as looking like “the best friend in a Judd Apatow movie.”

In suitable romantic comedy territory, Margot and Robert exchange numbers and start regularly texting, building up a flirtatious dynamic before securing an in-person date.  Despite their text chemistry – their textistry(?) – Robert appears to be a walking red flag for Margot, and she starts to fear what he might do should she be honest and reject him; the film opening with the Margaret Atwood quote “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them,” very much telegraphs the mentality to come.

Margot’s jokes about Robert being a serial killer speaks to her own uncertainty about his character, and though he’s physically imposing, he’s acutely unaware enough of his own capability enough to then offset her anxiety.  Her mind is split on how to feel about him, and whilst it’s an understandable trait in what instinct to trust, Michelle Ashford‘s script sadly never presents enough of a case for Margot to even continue entertaining the idea of being with him.  Though she’s concerned about how to broach the subject of not wanting to see him anymore, and the film has valid points in her own respect for letting him down gently enough, the manner in which their first sexual encounter is presented is enough for anyone to justify cutting all ties; through a breaking down of the fourth wall technique, where Margot comments on the situation at hand as an outside viewer to her own life, she talks herself into following through on having sex with Robert, despite her unease over his aggressive clumsiness.  It’s an-almost cringe-inducing sequence that comments on dating rituals, toxic masculinity, and gender dynamics, but it presents too many ideas without having a grasp on any of them entirely.

Though the original story takes up a large portion of Cat Person‘s first 2/3rds, it’s the film’s final act that forges its own path.  It’s a make-or-break type situation for any audiences still invested, and whilst there has been traces of psychological thrills teased throughout, the backend deviates entirely with a tonal shift that does no favours for Margot as a character we want to like.  I get making poor decisions for the sake of a genre narrative, but Margot willingly putting herself in Robert’s presence after he has shown signs of suspicious, stalking behaviour doesn’t sit well.  And by the time Fogel wraps up the story after an excruciatingly long 120 minutes, it feels as if it has lost all traces of its own original identity.

The tonal in-balance and mishandling of such a tale is truly a shame, and even more so that Cat Person is incredibly well-acted across the board, with both Jones and Braun delivering layered performances that help ground their characters whenever the story lifts them off the rails.  What Margot is experiencing is very much rooted in truth, and Jones effortlessly embodies someone who knows her worth, but is also unsure on how to navigate Robert’s feelings safely.  For his part, Braun is charming-enough for us to believe why Margot would want to spend time with him, and his gradual descent from sympathetic awkwardness to toxic rage is well choreographed, even in the film’s finale where the material feels far too melodramatic for its own good.

Support-wise, Hope Davis has fun as Margot’s overbearing mother, even if she is criminally underused, and Isabella Rossellini makes for a welcome cameo as Margot’s stoic professor, but it’s Geraldine Vinaswanathan who makes the biggest impression as Margot’s best friend, Taylor, who manages to overcome her character’s heightened dialogue and exhausting personality with her genuine on-screen presence and sharp wit.

There’s a strong version of Roupenian’s story somewhere here – definitely existing in a space that exorcises large portions of this film’s shaky third act – and that particular take on Cat Person is one that would be more worthy of the performances Jones and Braun commit to.  It’s uneven and a cautionary tale that deserves better, but at least it’s spearheaded by a duo of intriguing turns that do their best to maintain our interest when the story fails to do so.


Cat Person is playing as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, taking place between January 19th and 29th, 2023, both in person and online.  For more information head to the official Sundance page.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.