Cat Person Review: Emilia Jones Is Fantastic in This Strange, Enthralling Dating Story Based on the Viral New Yorker Tale

Cat Person
Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun in Cat Person/Sundance Film Festival

Dating isn’t easy, and cell phones and the internet have only further complicated what to many is a drawn-out and unpleasant process. It’s possible to analyze the meaning of a text message for hours on end, and some relationships take shape through that form of communication before the phone owners ever meet in real life. Cat Person is a peculiar but resonant story of what might have initially seemed like a meet-cute, and then turned into something confusing and downright bizarre.

Based on the 2017 New Yorker short story of the same name by Kristen Roupenian, Cat Person does a terrific job of bringing its controversial dating tale to the screen. Like Zola, it’s based heavily on text messages, which audiences are able to read as soon as Margot (Emilia Jones) looks down at her phone. That device manages not to become tiresome, especially as the college sophomore’s relationship with the older Robert (Nicholas Braun) intensifies. Texting is crucial to how they interact, but, as Margot comes to learn, people can be very different in real life.

It’s difficult to pin Cat Person down to any one genre. There is something very funny about the way that movie theater employee Margot first mocks Robert for buying Red Vines to go with his large popcorn and the ensuing awkwardness that leads to their first semi-date, which involves snacks from 7-Eleven brought to Margot’s lab late at night. But there’s also something off about Robert that Margot can’t quite pin down, though her roommate Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan) views as concerning red flags. The film’s opening quote from Margaret Atwood — “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” — sums up what Margot allows herself to feel when she really contemplates how little she knows about her new beau.

Cat Person
Geraldine Viswanathan and Emilia Jones in Cat Person/Sundance Film Festival

Margot’s mind is marvelously represented in this film as she frequently flashes to imagined moments that fill in the gaps in her knowledge of Robert. Foe example, when Robert says he has a busy week at work, Margot conjures him up in multiple professions. The editing by Jacob Craycroft is quick and sharp, and seeing Margot’s thoughts displayed visually adds to the proceedings. Michelle Ashford‘s screenplay is full of excellent quips and banter, and Director Susanna Fogel elevates Cat Person well beyond her previous comedies, such as The Spy Who Dumped Me and Life Partners.

The film serves as Jones’ return to Sundance following her breakout two years ago in CODA, and she also appears in another film at this year’s fest, Fairyland. If any doubt still remained, Cat Person proves that she can carry a film on her shoulders, as she has a superb energy that makes the story even more inviting and demonstrates a refreshing sense of humor. Braun, best known as Cousin Greg on HBO’s Succession, plays “questionably creepy” very well, while Viswanathan is a standout among the supporting cast, which also features brief but memorable appearances from Isabella Rossellini as Margot’s professor and Hope Davis as her mother.

Though Cat Person is sure to be swiftly acquired for distribution (if it hasn’t already by the time you read this), it’s a rollercoaster ride best experienced in the company of other people, i.e. in a movie theater. The sound of the audience audibly squirming in their seats definitely enhances the weirdness and the overall effect of this entertaining and memorable movie.

Grade: B+

Cat Person will screen six more times this week at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, and U.S. rights are still available.