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Are We Not Cats (Movie Review)

Are We Not Cats (Movie Review)
6 10

PLOT: After his parents move away and leave him with only a moving van to live in, troubled wastrel Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson) forms a distinct and disturbing bond with Anya (Chelsea Lopez). That is, they’re both addicted to eating human hair!

REVIEW: Nary a clip, logline, teaser, trailer, synopsis or single image had I laid eyes on to prior to hitting play on ARE WE NOT CATS, the brazenly bizarre and idiosyncratically offbeat indie curio from writer/director Xander Robin. Extended from his 2013 short film of the same name, this is likely the desired way to see a film that more or less defies description, clashes in tone and operates in the end as little more than a frostily morose mood piece. Indeed, going in cold just might be the way to proceed. However, despite some very good performances all around, a very particular brand of conflict, and a vivid depiction of profound longing and loneliness, in the end, there’s such a squalid quality to it all, undyingly ugly and unpleasant, which I suspect may leave more than a fair share of viewers with a queasy uneasiness. It takes skill to conjure such a feeling, to be sure, but it’s still a kind of universally unwanted feeling. So unless you’re as deeply fractured as the characters themselves, thereby finding a modicum of therapy in its frames, despite some poignant high points, ARE WE NOT CATS is likely to turn off more than reel in!

Eli, a wayward twenty-something, learns he’s soon to be homeless when his parents up and leave the frigid winter for sunny Arizona. With a desultory attitude, Eli turns the moving box-truck his dad left behind into his own rolling abode, hitting the road for a $200 job delivering an industrial engine. Showing up five hours late, Eli meets Kyle (Michael Godere), whom he agrees to give a ride after being so tardy with his engine. On the way to a filthy tweak-house, Kyle swigs from a detergent bottle of toxic homemade liquids, which he then passes over to Eli. This kicks off a drug-induced haze that enraptures Eli throughout the film, and accounts for his increasingly fractious state of mind. During his visit, Eli meets Anya, another drug-addled inebriate he takes an instant shine to. Eli learns where Anya works, steals her an organ piano of her liking (from the party) and eventually shows up to Al’s Lumberyard, where he meets Al (Dean Holtermann) and gets a logging job. All the while, as each day passes, Eli not only succumbs to increasingly confused mental state, he’s starting to break out in grotesque hives and rashes. He even begins to pluck out his own chin hair and eat it!

In this light, the title ARE WE NOT CATS reveals itself to a rather mordantly humorous one. As two spiritually broken souls come together to find solace in each other’s company, Eli and Anya share their additive devolvement of ingesting human hair. Hair! Of course, real housecats do not actively eat their own fur, their hairballs happen to be of collateral damage yielded from self-cleaning. This is what makes the title of the movie funny at best, curious at worst, as there is nothing accidental about the kind of compulsive imbibing they enjoy. Nor is there any real sense of spiritual cleansing. Even when ill-gained side effects are seen – lesions, rashes, vomit, etc. – they don’t decrease the intake, the up it. They find a bond in the bondage of addiction. It’s a particular brand of self-destruction that ought to be welcomed as somewhat original, even if the romantic entanglement between Eli and Anya doesn’t quite achieve the same. In fact, there’s a strained, muted quality to their physical connection that prevents the overall piece from having an emotional impact.

As for the horror in the film, most of it is saved for the overall drab and dire depravity in its environmental tone, but also for physically deformed grotesquery, self-mutilation and the like. Difficult to look at, sure, but not all that terrifying. No, the abject sense of impoverished inertia, the inability to do much to rectify their situation, that’s where most of the discomfort in the film is derived. Conversely, in the end there is a celebratory totem of sorts – a giant calcified hairball – that is hung as an ornamental hurdle Anya has overcome, one that offers a glimpse of hope in the end for all involved. I wouldn’t say a happy ending per se, but given all the physical repulsion and situational squalor in the early going, it may as well be. It plays as a twisted triumph if nothing else. Additional feats in the film must go to the actors, Nicholson in particular. After showing well in WE ARE STILL HERE in 2015, here he assumes a far more substantial role and plays it very naturalistically, credible vexed, never tipping his hand as to whether he’s going insane or simply falling victim to a drug induced stupor. He makes much of the movie go, with tertiary props out to Lopez as a corroded nymph with a faraway glint in her eye. Without these fully lived-in performances, the film wouldn’t work very well at all.

All things accounted for, consider this a mild recommendation for ARE WE NOT CATS, with the caveat of knowing full well it’ll likely turn off a giant percentage of the general film-going public. It’s a bitter and grueling emotional slog to get through at times. Still, for its sheer oddity, bold absurdity, distinct brand of addictive disease, impressive performances and stark portrait of profound loneliness…all of which achieved on a miniscule budget mind you…I think there’s enough here to warrant a look. If nothing else, it proves that writer/director Xander Robin may be one to keep an eye on in the future!

Extra Tidbit: ARE WE NOT CATS hits select theaters Friday, February 23rd.
Source: AITH

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