'Tormenting the Hen': Film Review

Courtesy of Factory 25
An allegory of sexual inequality in the guise of a relationship drama.
11/16/2017

Two women at a remote retreat deal with an intrusive neighbor in Theodore Collatos' drama.

A bucolic artists' retreat proves less restorative than expected for a lesbian couple in Tormenting the Hen, Theodore Collatos' low-budget drama about relationships both specific and universal. Dameka Hayes and Carolina Monnerat, relative newcomers to the screen, make an assured-enough fictional couple to let Collatos focus on external threats to a relationship that clearly has some internal issues already. While the result is less psychologically extreme than the pic's title might suggest, it should find admirers in Factory 25's niche theatrical release.

Hayes and Monnerat play Claire, a black playwright whose work puts race front and center, and Monica, a Brazilian working in New York as an environmental engineer. They've been together for years, but are "engaged" only in the vaguest way; when a stranger asks when they'll marry, it's clear that Monica is equally eager to know the answer.

When the couple arrive at the woodsy property (a former farm) where Claire will workshop her latest piece with two actors, locals give them less space than they're expecting. The volunteer driving them in from the train station (Josephine Decker) makes clueless assumptions about their relationship; a caretaker named Mutty (Matthew Shaw) uses lawnmowing as a pretext to violate their privacy.

Mutty emerges as the more immediate potential threat, making comments to Monica (when Claire's not around) that in a conventional genre film would pave the way for stalker terror. Though Monica interprets them this way — they trigger nightmares and twitchy behavior — we soon intuit that Mutty's motivations come from a different place. Even a seemingly nasty comment (he points out that the cottage where they're staying used to be a chicken coop, full of excrement — hence the film's title) may just be a clumsy, Asperger-tinged attempt to connect with the visitors.  

As weeks pass, Mutty is unsettlingly forward in his effort to make friends, even letting himself into the couple's house in hopes of having a beer with Monica. Monica must mostly deal with this alone, as Claire is in rehearsals with the two men (Brian Harlan Brooks and Dave Malinsky) attempting to bring her words to life. Both of these actors feel comfortable questioning the writer/director's characterizations and dialogue; here, too, the film seems to lay groundwork for a future confrontation.

Especially when viewed at this moment in time, Tormenting the Hen plays as a critique of the unwitting assumptions men make when dealing with women in our world — the freedom to suggest, question and intrude in ways that would likely seem unusual if coming from a woman toward a man. Rather than push these dramatizations toward points of reckoning, Collatos builds toward frustration, putting Claire and Monica (individually and as a couple) in situations that get just awkward enough to provoke outbursts, but never resolve satisfactorily. Each woman gets a chance to air her complaints, in other words, but neither has much reason to expect change. Here's hoping the current upheaval in the real world has a happier outcome.

Production company: Brokenhorse Productions
Distributor: Factory 25
Cast: Dameka Hayes, Carolina Monnerat, Matthew Shaw, Brian Harlan Brooks, Dave Malinsky, Josephine Decker
Director-screenwriter-director of photography: Theodore Collatos
Producers: Theodore Collatos, Matt Grady, George Manatos, Ben Umstead
Executive producer: Justin Sherratt
Editors: Theodore Collatos, George Manatos
Composers: Theodore Collatos, Jay Lifton, Sarah Lipstate, Matthew Shaw

77 minutes