Are We Not Cats? is the feature-length directorial debut from Xander Robin, apparently expanding on a short film of the same title he wrote and directed three years prior. Unfortunately, I have not seen the original short, and thus cannot speak as to one informing the other. A friend of mine, however, has seen it, and was kind enough to give the following insight: “It’s been a while, but I think it was like… Two hipsters fall in love, and one of them eats hair?” I had to admit, that wasn’t too far off from the feature version I’d just seen. Much of what sets the feature apart from the short, then, must be the surprising way that this simple premise manages to be wonderfully effective, at various turns, as both a slow-burn body horror and a quirky love story.
The film begins with Eli, a garbage man primed for a quarter-life crisis, being turned away by a lover, losing his job, and being given the news that his parents are selling their house, leaving him homeless. His father leaves Eli with an old moving truck that becomes his home, as well as his only potential source of income. Living in the back of a truck, barely scraping by, Eli picks up the nasty compulsion of pulling out his beard hairs and swallowing them. On a job delivering a car engine to a mechanic, he winds up giving a ride to a hard-partying stranger who convinces him to drink antifreeze, before taking him to a rave where Eli meets the man’s girlfriend, Anya. As the trio spend time together, Eli notices that Anya seems to share his habitual hair-eating (trichophagia, as Wikipedia tells me).
All of this, including the love story that follows, is undeniably shot through with horror, despite never quite becoming a horror film. The entire film has an almost tangible layer of grime, a coating of dirt over every scene that creates an uncomfortable friction as you rub against it. There is an effective sense of unease throughout, much of which comes from the smartly evocative portrayal of Eli’s homelessness. He is aimless, frustrated, lonely, hungry, sick all the time, and all of these things are visceral in the early acts, palpable. As Eli’s health declines, the visuals (including an ever-worsening rash on his back) get more and more intense, building up to some truly squirmy moments in the last act.
And yet it is, ultimately, a love story. Are We Not Cats? is about two attractive young people who are distinctly outsiders (for more than a few reasons) finding each other by kismet and forming an instant connection. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that with a bit of clever editing, you could cut the film into a quirky, horror-free romcom. It’s this combination of elements that makes the film work, on the whole.
Eli’s general unwellness is something we suffer through with him, as the audience. The film pulls you into a sense of disorienting sickness. So when a relationship begins that should set off warning bells, instead we can’t help but be charmed by the nice girl who wants to eat his hair. The love story is dark, but when compared to the preceding material, shines as a light at the end of the tunnel. The tonal shifts leave you with a horror story that’s earnestly sweet, a romantic comedy with a scene of shocking gore, and a directorial debut that makes Xander Robin someone to watch out for.