What begins as an examination of middle-class-mom exasperation — in which demanding some marital equality makes one not just a figurative “bitch” but a literal one — turns into a more commonplace bad-dad parable in Marianna Palka’s off-kilter, largely off-target satire Bitch. Playing the title character, a mother who suffers a psychological break and begins behaving like a dog, the writer/director gives most of the movie to frequent collaborator Jason Ritter, who plays her mostly worthless husband. Unsatisfying in the pulpy sense suggested by its Midnight-section booking at Sundance, the pic’s presumed political agenda never crystallizes sufficiently to hold promise in art houses. It will likely find itself confined to the doghouse of VOD.
Palka enters the film as upper-middle-class mom Jill, who has already secretly tried to kill herself when she complains to husband Bill (Ritter) that she really needs to go on a retreat to learn how to paint. “I’m terrified I’m going to do something,” she says, agitated. You might feel the same way, if you’d spawned four kids as bratty as hers, but the threat rolls off Bill’s back as he happily rushes off to his office and secretary-slash-mistress.
But while Bill is out living the life of a solipsistic corporate achiever, collapse looms on many fronts. One night, Jill disappears; when the kids find her — laughing about the scene, for no reason we can discern — she is naked on all fours, covered in feces, and growling like the canine she now believes herself to be.
An insanely busy score by Morgan Z. Whirledge (abstract jazz one moment, springy jaw harp the next) makes an abrasive situation much more so, as the coming days find Bill incapable of handling the household on his own. With Jill out of the picture, he not only can’t figure out how to feed his children and get them to school, he’s throwing screaming tantrums of his own. Jill’s sister Beth (Jaime King), thank god, shows up to help keep the household from exploding.
But when doctors conclude the obvious, that Jill needs a little time in a mental facility, Bill categorically refuses. It’s neither the first nor the last time we don’t believe a character’s behavior here — the couple’s children, instead of being traumatized, are still laughing at Mom as if she were just walking around with toilet paper stuck to her shoe — but it leads to Bill’s own mini-breakdown.
From roughly this point on, the film veers unsatisfyingly, trying to get serious about the emotions of characters we’ve been set up to dismiss. Bill’s struggle to cope, his laughable attempts to keep his job while parenting at home, his battle with Jill’s parents over custody of her — one struggles to find reasons to care, while the movie’s presumed object of sympathy is locked in the basement covered in filth.
For a film viewers will immediately view through a feminist lens, Bitch finds questionable ways to resolve its domestic nightmare, relying on the changeability of an irredeemable husband and never asking why this marriage, and these children, exist in the first place. But maybe it’s true: Maybe all some of us need is a partner who’ll take us to the dog park.
Production company: Company X
Cast: Jason Ritter, Marianna Palka, Jaime King, Brighton Sharbino, Rio Mangini, Kingston Foster, Jason Maybaum, Caroline Aaron, Bill Smitrovich
Director-screenwriter: Marianna Palka
Producers: Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Elijah Wood, Mike Moran
Executive producers: Lisa Whalen, Fernando Szew, Elisa Lleras, Michael M. McGuire
Director of photography: Armando Salas
Production designer: Ryan Brett Puckett
Costume designer: Valerie Mores
Editor: Brett W. Bachman
Composer: Morgan Z. Whirledge
Casting directors: Danielle Aufiero, Amber Horn
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Sales: ICM, MarVista