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September 9, 2016 Comments (4) Views: 4030 *Seattle Cinemaland, Arts & Entertainment, Film, Reviews

Cute v Cruel: Dawn of “Chatty Catties”

"Cats can talk" in the oddball indie film "Chatty Catties" screening at Northwest Film Forum

“Cats can talk”  in the oddball indie film “Chatty Catties” screening at Northwest Film Forum

Perhaps you love cats. Maybe you own one. Maybe you talk to it. Maybe you wish it could talk back. What wacky, funny things would it say?

If you are given to such whimsy, then you might find interesting Chatty Catties, a movie that portrays a world where humans and felines speak to each other in English. Maybe that sounds to you like a wonderful world, and a fun night out at the movies.

O dear, sweet Pollyanna, I must deliver unto thee this spoiler: Chatty Catties has a silly title, but a dark heart. It may very well reduce you to tears, and cause you to hope that cats, and most certainly your cat, will never be able to convey their thoughts via human speech, for cruelty is real, and its nidus, evidently, is the feline mind.

And that is precisely why I recommend it. At turns awkward, uncomfortable, mean, real, fake, terrible, good, inartful, artful and funny, it is more Inland Empire than Babe, refusing to live up to expectations, least of all those you might harbor after discovering its funky title.

The main through-line of the film concerns a twenty- (or early-thirty-?) something woman-in-trouble named Shelby, and her talking cat Leonard. Their relationship plays out in a series of conversational vignettes, rather than conventional scenes, wherein Shelby does or says something, and Leonard criticizes her. Quasi-artsy super-8 clips, and snippets of other cats talking to their owners, fill the gaps between the otherwise episodic Shelby and Leonard Show.

Or should I say War? Leonard hates Shelby, and not in a shallow Garfield-hates-John kind of way. When it comes to Shelby, Leonard is Garfield 2.0. He’s more disaffected. He’s more critical. He’s more brutally honest. He’s also less invested, less loyal, and less funny (if Garfield can be considered funny). Leonard longs to be free of Shelby to a degree Garfield never wanted to be free of John. He seems to show affection to everyone but her, even though she mostly treats him better than she treats herself or anyone else.

Why does Leonard hate her so much? Sure, Shelby is an aimless drunkard who is a little dirty and a lot selfish, barely holding down her banal receptionist job, her friendships, and her alcohol. She’s a mess, but you might see a bit of yourself in her messiness. She has crushed creative ambitions and she loves her cat. You might want to like her. A more typical charming/endearing indie film might even allow her to brighten into an Amelie-like figure.

But this is not some French fairytale. Leonard, and the film, won’t let her, or you, off the hook so easily. This is about disintegration and downfall. Shelby doesn’t have an arc. She has a slope that points decisively downward like a Great Depression-era stock arrow charted for misery, its jagged plunge-line scratched into stone by an inexplicably heartless Leonard.

When Shelby’s name appears on her apartment wall, a broken banner hanging in the aftermath of a bad birthday party whose remains read only “by by,” you might find yourself wondering why. Why was Leonard so discontented, so cruel, so eager to destroy such a marginally-damaged person? Who is the protagonist here? Who is the antagonist? Chatty Catties blurs the lines. The protagonist seems to be Leonard, and yet no wrong is done him by the supposed antagonist Shelby.

As for the rest of the film, we don’t get to know much about the characters depicted in the aforementioned interstitial scenes. The other cats generally seem critical while their humans generally seem criticized. If the film’s intention is to show that speech-enabled cats would scratch emotionally as much as they do physically, then mission accomplished.

One interstitial scene is particularly strange. The camera floats around a wall of cages in an animal shelter. As each caged cat enters the frame, they “speak” a little one-liner that is intended, I think, to be cute and humorous, but instead comes off as cringe-worthy and sad, as images of lonesome, and perhaps doomed, pets in that kind of environment are wont to do. It is hard to process the mixed signals of this sequence as it tries to transform the depressing plight of shelter cats into aww-shucks laughs. Because it is such a perfect crystallization of the emotional tenor of the entire film, I can’t decide if it’s an awful misstep or a savvy thesis statement. I didn’t expect a film named Chatty Catties to remind me that life is cruel. On second thought, perhaps this is a French fairytale.

Final assessment: If you want to see a talking cat destroy a woman’s already wobbly life, and laugh a little along the way, Chatty Catties is the film for you. The ending alone might justify the price of admission.

Chatty Catties plays September 9th, 17th, and October 8th at Northwest Film Forum. Go HERE for tickets/more info.

Chatty Catties
(Pablo Valencia, US, 2016, 84 min)

Friday, Sep 09 at 10:00PM
Saturday, Sep 17 at 10:00PM
Saturday, Oct 08 at 10:00PM

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4 Responses to Cute v Cruel: Dawn of “Chatty Catties”

  1. Wade says:

    You are an amazing writer.

  2. Brad Wilke says:

    This is a really insightful review, John. Thanks for taking the time to consider the film and its themes in such a thoughtful way. As the film’s distributor, I’ve seen it MANY times, and each time reveals something new to me. This past Friday, it was the inherent heartbreak of the “shelter” scene. IMO, Pablo (the director) was aiming for “lonesome and doomed,” as opposed to light-hearted and humorous, though I think each viewer could take it either way depending on their respective mood or state of mind. Anyway, great review. Thanks, again!

  3. John Boucher says:

    Thanks for the notes, Brad. Each of my film comments is a snapshot in time, really, and can’t possibly capture everything there is to experience from any given film. One of the most enchanting aspects of cinema is that it is an ever-changing mirror, and each successive glance into it reveals new things. I’m often nervous to concretize my opinions into published form for just this reason. Lonesome and doomed, by the way, is what I felt from the scene you mentioned, and that clashed, for me, with the light-heared and humorous voice-overs. The effect is unsettling and therefore memorable and worthy of further remark / discussion. Anyway, thanks for adding your perspective to what optimally would be an ongoing conversation.

  4. John Boucher says: