Focused on romance, pleasure, and pain, screenwriter and director Xander Robin’s feature length debut, Are We Not Cats, is a stylishly edgy, wry, and quirky delight. Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson) is neither ambitious nor grounded. In the span of a few hours, he loses his girl (really his f-bud, but he didn’t quite get that), his job as a garbage collector, and his home when his Russian immigrant parents abruptly inform him that they sold their house and are moving to Arizona. “Visit us!” his mother chirps right after his father bribes him with a delivery truck to get out that night.
After moving into the back of the truck, crashing and showering wherever he can, and driving around aimlessly, Eli picks up a one-off job delivering a motor to a junkyard. There, he stumbles upon knitcapped Kyle (Michael Godere), who introduces him to a toxic elixir, a feral underground scene in a basement, and his impish feline girlfriend, Anya (Chelsea LJ Lopez). Eli is smitten. He stalks Anya, who doesn’t seem to mind. He discovers that they share a similar nervous habit: he pulls his hair out and she eats hair. Anya’s magnetism pulls Eli down a dark path he isn’t quite equipped to travel.
Are We Not Cats is uneven, but what it lacks in consistency and depth it makes up for in style. Robin has a wicked dark, offbeat sense of humor. His camerawork is sharp, nimble, and has a certain momentum to it. The locations—a junkyard, a disused barn, an empty diner—work beautifully with the bleak, snow covered landscapes to underscore Eli’s resigned state of mind. Robin contrasts this with colorfully vivid and cozy scenes with Anya, who possesses a flair for clutter. Matt Clegg’s druggy, dreamlike cinematography is flat where it should be, and brighter and more dimensional where it needs to be. The story sags a bit toward the end, but the film’s brevity mitigates this problem. Nicholson’s passive and forlorn take on his scruffy character is deftly balanced; somehow, he keeps Eli sympathetic despite the fact that his hapless demeanor, lack of social skills and boundaries, and sleepy purposelessness are turnoffs. The soundtrack, consisting almost entirely of old Seventies soul tunes, is as much a character as anyone; the music contributes its own warmth and personality that literally makes this film sing.
Screening followed by a live Q and A with Xander Robin and Michael Patrick Nicholson.
(AMC River East) B-
Chicago International Film Festival