Movie Review: A Cat’s Tale

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cats-tale-posterA Cat’s Tale is an independent film. Very independent. It defies all the current norms of studio production. Recently debuted at the Chelsea International Film Festival in New York, it is the recipient of both Best Director and Best Ensemble Cast awards from the Best Actors Film Festival in San Francisco. And no wonder. For this story of a pair of middle-aged fraternal twins, Rob and Carla (Marty Grabstein and Lisa Barnes), Director Rick Mowatt has crafted a fluid cinematic style to create individual and shared spaces for the embattled siblings, while Grabstein and Barnes have honed performances that uncannily fill those spaces with both the profound loneliness of isolated souls and the two step of prisoners of a fraught family history. Who tells stories about middle-aged people? Family stories are about young people, cute people, people who hit back at middle-aged people. Right? Read on.

Written by Anna Capunay and Rick Mowatt, and based on a stage play presumably of the same name, A Cat’s Tale observes the Aristotelian recipe for intensity, taking place within a 24 hour time frame and dramatizing the downward trajectory of a family. The cat of the title, Paddy, a handsome marmalade colored tom, stands as a kind of Greek chorus as Carla and Rob spar. Of course, a conventional Greek chorus is very verbal and the cat is an all but silent witness. The usual Greek chorus is thoughtful. The cat is a visceral presence. But that is the kind of presence that is called for in the lives of siblings who are locked into neurotic repetitions of evasive words. The action of the film is an upheaval on a particular day when Carla hysterically calls Rob insisting that he come immediately to the old family home, where she lives with their parents and Paddy, while the parents are away in Atlantic City. Clearly, this is a fairly unusual occasion; the two have spent little time together recently. But as soon as Rob enters the door, we begin to feel that a familiar family ritual is in the process of revving up. They immediately fall into a rhythmic counterpoint of mutual disparagement and melancholy self-attack. Paddy, 38 years old, is sick, and Carla wants a very unwilling Rob to drive them to a veterinarian to save his life. As they verbally and sometimes physically flagellate each other and take turns savaging themselves, Paddy remains in his carrier, mostly unseen, but sometimes visible through the net panel on the front of the carrier, and sometimes the source of the point of view on this dysfunctional twosome.

Grievances, regrets, and recriminations flow freely as Rob and Carla battle over whether Paddy should be saved or put down. They move through the category of their personal and professional failures with practiced thoroughness. The subject of Paddy’s life or death is new but the acrimony is old, a stew of anger, frustration, denial, and self-deception that has been simmering almost as long as they have been alive. It’s an American version of Sartre’s No Exit. For Sartre’s gladiatorial French threesome, “Hell is other people.” For Capunay and Mowatt’s twins, it’s family that is Hell, but because this is an American story not a French existentialist parable, the film is punctuated by a dark humor that leavens the suffering. We are not witnessing a universal battle of the sexes, as in No Exit, but rather we are opening a window onto the darker part of the continuum of modern life. The story is unexpectedly buttressed by an unkillable spark of optimism that survives not only the punishing repertoire, but also the unexpected revelation of secrets that I will not disclose here in hopes that you will have the opportunity to see A Cat’s Tale and make the discovery for yourself.

Suffice it to say, that Capunay, Mowatt, and producer Paula Landry have been bold, refreshing and innovative in their development of a drama that considers the sexism of traditional families but is not itself sexist. Nor does the film pander to the equivalence between physical beauty and personal value that has only grown more pronounced in Hollywood films. We are successfully invited to care about characters who are not only flawed emotionally but who are also not models of plastic perfection. They bear the physical scars and wear and tear of life. People who have derived little satisfaction from their loveless lives, Carla and Rob eat too much; eat the wrong things; and take too many over the counter medications and their bodies show it. Yet the film keeps us from making them the targets of our contempt. Their problems are more extreme, hopefully, than ours, but anyone who has lived in a family will be reminded of milder forms of strife in their own lives. Home is indeed for all of us, as David Lynch has said, a “place where things can go wrong.”

How wrong do things go for these two? Do this brother and sister reach a catharsis by the end of the film? What happens to Paddy? Is this off-beat vision of the lower depths of the American middle class a clue to understanding Trump’s right wing supporters? Is the film one of the fruits of the feminist movement? A Cat’s Tale is nothing if not provocative.

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