Take away a few contemporary markers, and Are We Not Cats could be a droll relic of No Wave cinema. Xander Robin incorporates the aesthetics of punk as well as its insouciant nihilism into his first feature, a fantastical romance rooted in compulsive behavior. Robin and cinematographer Matt Clegg balance on-the-fly naturalism with a heightened reality, infusing ordinary encounters with dry wit and absurdist verve.
It doesn't take much to untether Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson) from his hapless life in New York City, and he floats upstate to snowy, rural isolation. The vibrant Anya (Chelsea Lopez), who stands out like neon Betsey Johnson amid pragmatic plaid and cotton duck, immediately draws his interest, an attraction reinforced by their shared habit: the irresistible urge to pull out their own hair -- which they then eat. Eli's nibbling seems triggered by stress, while Anya has begun to gorge and risks a deadly intestinal condition (trichophagia).
Writer/director Robin has expanded his 2013 short (also starring Nicholson) into a misfit love story that goes beyond shock value. Anya and Eli's trichotillomania is wrapped up with their loneliness and despondency, an emotional disconnection so profound that they've retreated into their bodies and find sustenance in self-harm. Are We Not Cats isn't built upon sustained dread or expressive gore; the horror is internalized as the promise of impossibility. Robin uses well-timed jolts and gross-out moments to awaken his solitary characters from their stupor, to shock them into acknowledging that their existence isn't confined to the soul's protective shell.