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The roots of romance are intimately and ickily probed in Xander Robin’s debut feature Are We Not Cats, a distinctive New York indie that’s promising and uncompromising in roughly equal measure. Chronicling the economic and emotional mishaps of a neurotic thirtyish schlub over the course of several hectic mid-winter days, it picks up on certain key aspects of Robin’s well-received 12-minute 2013 short of identical title. And while very much a film of two unequal halves, there’s more than enough cinematic chutzpah on display here, especially in the early sections, to confirm the Floridian writer-director as a name to watch.
World-premiering as the closer of Critics’ Week at Venice, the picture appeals as an obvious pick for festivals which favor rising talents of an edgy and stylish stripe, and — with its echoes of such recent indie notables as Charles Poekel’s Christmas, Again, Josh Mond’s James White and John Magary’s The Mend — could reward limited theatrical play in hipster enclaves.
As in the Poekel, Mond and Magary films, the directorial focus is squarely and relentlessly on a protagonist adrift in the throes of existential crisis. But Robin’s approach has its own idiosyncratic streak of off-kilter comedy, as our hangdog hero Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson) endures the rapid-fire triple-whammy of being dumped by his girlfriend, fired from his garbage-route job and thrown out of his family’s apartment within what feels like few hours.
Plunged into homelessness when his elderly Russian-migrant parents abruptly decamp to Arizona — “Visit us!” urges his mother in a throwaway moment rendered truly hilarious by whip-pan camerawork and abrupt cutting — Eli ends up sleeping in the back of the truck he uses for delivery jobs. One of these errands brings him into contact with party-hearty Kyle (Michael Godere) and then the latter’s kooky, elfin girlfriend Anya (Chelsea LJ Lopez). Eli’s attraction to the seemingly happy-go-lucky Anya quickly escalates into more serious — and ultimately more dangerous — territory.
Robin sets out his stylish stall with arrestingly bold, enigmatic, sensually powerful opening titles: undulating underwater fronds shot in intense close-up, accompanied by ululating, wailing blues. We’re then plunged into Eli’s scruffy shoes with arresting brio, as Robin and Nicholson conjure a character haplessly unglued from established routine and freewheeling giddily into a maelstrom of chaos.
Continuing an ongoing collaboration with cinematographer Matt Clegg, Robin frames Eli’s cork-on-the-tides-of-fate adventures amid gloriously hard-knock post-industrial landscapes. The encroaching atmosphere of rust, decay and dilapidation is palpable, as we trek from tumbledown scrap-yards to stygian basement clubs where walls shake to the crushingly heavy reverb of bass-guitars. Soundtrack-choices are consistently imaginative and audacious, especially old-school Miami soul tracks intermittently deployed in a manner that recalls the Jeremy Saulnier of Blue Ruin days. The results are, for a while, truly intoxicating.
But when the focus shifts to Eli and Anya’s halting courtship, Robin’s sure touch as writer and director begins to wobble. An early warning-sign is the moment when hot-head Kyle walks in on the budding lovebirds at the most inopportune of junctures — a scriptwriting contrivance that’s long since passed into corny cliche.
Eli has been presented as uncomfortable in his own skin from the off, compulsively yanking out the hairs of his scrubbly beard and scratching his back into a red-raw palimpsest of rashes. The second half veers into Cronenberg-ian body-horror territory, as the extent of Anya’s own neuroses and syndromes becomes apparent. Are We Not Cats retreats from its trump-card seedy verisimilitude into more fanciful and even fantastical narrative modes, including some grueling and gory scenes of amateur emergency surgery.
Robin delves deep into the worlds of trichotillomania and trichophagia — respectively the compulsive pulling-out of one’s own hair (as experienced by Charlize Theron’s character in 2011’s Young Adult) and the consumption of same — reportedly drawing on his own personal experience of such disorders. There’s the strong sense of a talented young artist working through autobiographical hang-ups via the medium of cinema, and thus clearing them out of his system.
His next steps should be followed closely, in any case, especially if he continues his fruitful involvement with the likes of Clegg and star Nicholson, who both filled the same roles in his 2013 short. Nicholson is a droll delight as the perpetually life-worn Eli — who, when told at one point that he looks “tired,” sighingly fires back, “This is what I look like.” He exudes some of the weaselly, goblin-like but naggingly sympathetic mien best encapsulated onscreen by Seymour Cassel and would be pockmark-perfect casting for any biopic of that previous chronicler of nocturnal masculine anomie, Charles Bukowski.
Production company: F
Cast: Michael Patrick Nicholson, Chelsea LJ Lopez, Michael Godere
Director / Screenwriter: Xander Robin
Producers: Theo Brooks, Xander Robin, Joshua Sobel
Cinematographer: Matt Clegg
Production designers: Serban Ionescu, J. McDonald, Justin Murphy
Costume designer: Laura Cristina Ortiz
Editors: Dustin Waldman, Xander Robin
Music: Garret Morris, DJ Burn One
Venue: Oldenburg Film Festival (Independent Competition)
Sales: TriCoast, Culver City, California (Marcy@TriCoast.com)
No rating, 78 minutes
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