By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 5, 2019
Released Feb. 23, 2018
Unrated (equal to rated R for language, imagery, thematic elements, brief gore, and potentially upsetting depictions of aberrant behavior) – 1hr 17min
Directed by Xander Robin
Starring Michael Patrick Nicholson, Chelsea Lopez, Michael Godere
Hard luck Eli (Nicholson) loses his girlfriend, his job, and his home all in a matter of hours. With only a beat-up box truck left in his life, he takes on a job as a freelance hauler, and when he meets Anya – the girlfriend of one of his clients – they bond over a shared impulsive fetish of eating hair. Maybe Eli’s luck has finally changed? Maybe it hasn’t.
Are We Not Cats is a relentlessly quirky romantic dramedy with some gross ingredients in the mix. It’s as if Frank Henenlotter of Basket Case and Frankenhooker fame (or infamy) collaborated with Zach Braff of Scrubs and Garden State fame (or infamy) to make a love story that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be unconventionally endearing or thoroughly uncomfortable. Alternately, it’s also like Charlie from It’s Always Sunny… were a real-life person and wrote a romantic screenplay. If there were a name for the subgenre this film belonged to, it might be ‘hipster-squirm’.
Narrative: For a solid half-hour or so, I didn’t even know what the movie was about, other than a chronology of a low point in the life of America’s most downtrodden millennial. Even once Anya is introduced, the story has a difficult time settling into a groove, and the pacing suffers for it. Not until the final 15 minutes did it even become apparent that Are We Not Cats had an actual story that it wanted to tell and not just be a collection of off-kilter and vaguely unsettling incidents that happen to surround a particular character. It does have a definite ending though that ties together much of the story, but there are still moments of non-sequitir excess.
Acting: With the narrative thread as thin as a strand of hair, a lot of weight is put on the shoulders of the two leads – Nicholson & Lopez – to keep things compelling, and they do their best. These are strange and guarded characters, so there’s some payoff there when they discover that they can be themselves around each other. The rest of the cast is an assorted lot of oddballs, loonies, and scumbags – there does not appear to be a single person in this fictional universe who is both stable and decent.
Appearance: Writer/director Xander Robin infuses Are We Not Cats with a lot of visual flair for such a microbudget effort. A lot of thought and vision went into the framing of many shots and a distinctive style emerges that could be described as ‘thrift-shop’ or ‘junk-art’. Although shot on digital, it doesn’t have that overgloss look that many low-budget non-film productions have, instead resembling the washed-out appearance of retro ’90s indies.
Horror Elements: Are We Not Cats is something of a body horror movie that exists entirely in the realm of the mundane – there’s nothing otherworldly about eating the hair off someone’s head or the mess of rashy sores that lines Eli’s back. Yet, while the film is working toward a big gross finale, these details are not particularly prevalent. What is perhaps more unsettling though is the uncanny world that Eli & Anya occupy – it’s as if society is populated by junkies that don’t do drugs. It makes for an odd atmosphere of discomfort, but it may well be interpretive; Eli, as the focal character, doesn’t understand or relate to others in a typical manner, and we get to see that translated into behavior that seems bizarre, sketchy, or inexplicable. Perhaps.
Sound: The soundtrack of Are We Not Cats is some kind of indie jazz rock fusion that you would find on a Spotify playlist of that one friend of yours who is always on the bleeding edge of music.
TL;DR: This movie is certainly not for all tastes, nor was it really for mine. I am liking it more (or disliking it less) the more I think about it, as it does succeed in leaving a lasting impression. Although it’s classified as a horror movie, at least to some degree, that’s more by nature of its oddity and penchant for squeamishness than anything purely horrific. Are We Not Cats is well-made and well-acted though, regardless of other considerations outside its story with a tendency to wander. It’s likely to be warmly embraced within its niche of indie aficionados, but it doesn’t transcend beyond that clique.