Every film festival has its bizarre pieces of outsider art that get a lot of buzz for how batshit weird they are. But too many of those films end up disappointing. Maybe their weirdness is all there is to them. Maybe they’re only funny because they’re ineptly made. Or maybe the directors are too savvy and self-aware for the weirdness to feel “real.” I’ve been burned by 'em all.
But video artist and former dog groomer Michael Reich’s debut feature She’s Allergic To Cats deftly avoids such pitfalls by somehow being completely genuine in its weirdness and yet telling a clear, simple story. Simultaneously bizarre and conventional, She’s Allergic is a paradox and a miracle: a film informed by (and part of) a dirty VHS aesthetic, without being subsumed by it, filled with surreal humour that’s not there by accident.
Dog groomer and video artist Mike Pinkney (played by Reich’s buddy Mike Pinkney) has a rat problem. They’re infesting his house and eating his bananas right as he’s getting to know Cora (Sonja Kinski, granddaughter of Klaus), a rare human being who shows interest in him as a person. With his landlord unwilling to deal with the infestation, his producer Sebastian uninterested in his idea of remaking Carrie with cats, and neighbourhood dog Karma going missing, the world seems to be closing in on Mike. Can he get his life together and exterminate the rats before Cora inevitably sees his house? This is the central challenge of She’s Allergic To Cats.
In a cinematic culture dominated by superhero stories with world-ending consequences, the rock-bottom stakes of She’s Allergic are a delightful refreshment. By projecting insignificant struggles up to cinema-screen scale, the film captures the weight of despair that can descend upon those for whom small tasks seem insurmountable. By being rooted in (somewhat) relatable problems, too, the story is made accessible to everyone - and for such a strange movie, it’s told in a surprisingly conventional way.
But it’s also those low stakes, and the intense sincerity with which they are portrayed, that makes this movie the wonderful and unique work of comedy that it is. Unfolding like a feature-length sketch from Chris Morris’ underseen TV series Jam, She’s Allergic To Cats is impossible to look away from. Lead actor Pinkney delivers a focused, deadpan performance that drives home the script’s hilarious banality. Kinski joins him in committing one hundred percent to a tone that paints the matter-of-fact as extreme melodrama. Of the small cast, only YouTube celebrity Flula Borg’s performance energy clashes with the rest, but his dialogue and mannerisms are so odd that he merely ends up offering a counterpoint.
The performances are aided by a directorial eye that lasers in on things most directors would gloss over. Mike’s job as a dog groomer is explored in lurid detail, his boss waxing poetic over lathering techniques and engaging in a lengthy diversion into the need for expressing dogs’ anal glands. A significant portion of the film’s running time is made up of investigations into the logistics of Mike’s Cat Carrie production. Another lengthy sequence involves the dissection of a stranger’s DVD collection, with prominent shout-outs to Congo and Howard the Duck that ride waves of audience laughter with ease. Even ordinary dialogue exchanges are frequently given subtle, unexpected twists that push them into the realm of the absurd.
Shot in 4K on Red cameras and downgraded through DVD players, MiniDV, and VHS tapes, She’s Allergic To Cats is a lo-fi fever dream that is at once grungy and conventionally well-shot, with a warmth to the image you don't see often in digital indie features. But while the film’s full of tracking errors and abstract video art, Reich doesn’t use VHS artifacts as an affectation, as many of his contemporaries do. instead, it’s expressive, appearing at times of high emotion, representing Mike’s increasingly inner turmoil over his decidedly low-stakes situation. Scenes become degraded to varying degrees because of what the scenes need, not to satisfy some desire for retro-aesthetic wankery. Reich’s background in video art lends him a smart sense of when to use it and why.
She’s Allergic To Cats is a deceptively intelligent movie driven by pitch-perfect outsider comedy, and a surprisingly emotional ride through a series of everyday tragedies writ large. It’s funny and confounding and adorable and gross all at once, and I love it to goddamn pieces.