Each film festival must be required to have at least one entry about two wayward souls who find unconventional love. Usually this comes in the form of a hip comedy, or a period drama, or a combination of both. Rarely do these films cross several genres at once; and almost never are they as stylistically, psychologically, or thematically fascinating as Xander Robin’s debut, Are We Not Cats.
A synopsis of the film does it complete injustice by simplifying it. The plot does exist, and unravels in a satisfying fashion, but it is not the film’s focus. Over the course of 80 minutes we traverse comedy, drama, road movie, romance, and horror – all following Eliezer, a confused and mostly aimless young man who loses his girlfriend, his job, and his house within the span of a week. (An experience that feels quite common amongst young people.) Living out of a truck, he goes on a sort of odyssey to upstate New York, where he meets a young woman named Anya. Turns out, they both share a secret habit – eating hair. One of them is more wrapped up in this habit than the other.
Eliezer, played brilliantly by Michael Patrick Nicholson (who, oddly enough, does not get attacked by burning ghosts as happens in We Are Still Here), is our point of view. We see the world through his eyes – and it’s an uncomfortable, ugly world for much of the film. Shot mostly at night during the bone-rattling New York February of 2015, the cinematography captures exactly that kind of cold. New York winters are mean, merciless, and isolating. It’s the perfect setting for Eliezer’s road trip. I will never forget living in an unheated East Village apartment during that winter – the filmmakers get the sensation exactly right.
The sensory detail of the film as whole is incredible. You can feel the wind, smell the exhaust, taste the cheap food (including homemade ketchup-and-water soup, yum). The world is richly, absurdly textured. Due to this, it elevates itself from the typical existential-young-people-in-crisis film. Where those movies are content to be “cool” and warmly styled, this one is awkward, ugly, and sometimes a little brutal. Anchored by Nicholson’s performance, that style draws the viewer in and traps them in an emotional state that, while unpleasant, is universal.
It’s the emotion that really carries the film, both through the senses and through the characters’ experience. Anya is just as well-drawn as Eliezer, played with heartbreaking finesse by Chelsea Lopez. Their strenuous relationship is where the core of the film rests. I can’t give too much away, because there are moments of visual surprise that absolutely must be experienced in their purity. I’ll simply say that Anya and Eliezer represent a very honest sort of loneliness – the kind that bonds destructively when it meets. What occurs when they find each other is strange, frightening, and beautiful.
Only a portion of the film can really classify as horror; but as a whole emotional experience, it is indeed harrowing, while also touching and truthful. It’s a personal exorcism for Robin, and the audience as well. There is no pretension in it, though the title might sound a little highbrow – only sheer stylistic force and affecting moral ambivalence. As a debut, it’s rather astounding, and promises much more to come from Robin and his talented crew. After a year of exciting genre releases, this stands out as a singularly strange, heartfelt, sometimes-gross, and beautiful piece of filmmaking. It’s a reminder, too, that we all feel isolated at one point, and perhaps there is closure in that knowledge.