Film Review: CHEATIN’ (★★★★)

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The situation with Best Animated Feature year in and year out is always a curious one.  There always seems to be 3 or 4 well-reviewed studio flicks from Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks with the occasional studio exception like The Lego Movie and Rango.  However, it’s the remaining animated films that make the situation often frustrating.  There are many big studio animated films about which no one cares due to bad reviews or poor box office.  And then there’s a fascinating third tier–the independent animate film and/or foreign animated films.  These films are frequently difficult to see and often challenging to the viewer.  Sometimes, films in this third tier can sneak a nomination (think Ernest & Celestine, A Cat in Paris, Chico and Rita, The Illusionist, and The Secret of Kells).  Without question, these films have an uphill battle and face an unfair disadvantage.  Sometimes, it’s a reviewer’s job to wave a flag.  So herein, I wave a flag for an independent animated film: Bill Plympton‘s masterful Cheatin’.

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Animated, written, and directed by two time Oscar nominee Bill Plymption, Cheatin’ is a marvelously imagined feature. The film begins with our heroine Ella walking through the streets of her town, nose-deep in a book. Ella is in her own little world. The mere act of her walking past men drive the men crazy—her looks, her smell, her aura. All the men are turned on by her—disturbingly so. These men have eyes that protrude from their heads, that slither and move unnaturally, that have a moistening clap as they follow her across frame. Fatefully, Ella enters into an electric bumper-car ride. After a bizarre accident, she meets the hunky man of her dreams—Jake.

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Jake and Ella make a great couple. They’re both beautiful, for starters. Additionally, they both are genuinely in deep, passionate, unbelievable love with one another. Once Ella realizes how much she loves Jake, Plympton takes us on a journey into Ella’s heart, which is through a series of nearly 30 locked devices. It’s something you have to see to fully appreciate (and can be seen in part in the trailer on the film’s website).

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Jake and Ella, sadly, are constantly bombarded with outside temptations—as all couples are. Jake has women throwing themselves at him. He, being so madly in love with Ella, rebukes them without so much as a scintilla of doubt. He casually ignores his tanned neighbor undressing in front of him. He ignores many who give him their numbers on lipstick signed napkins. He does so because of love. He can’t imagine cheating on Ella. Why would he?

Then, a series of events take place that calls Jake’s love for Ella and Ella’s fidelity into question. There’s a stunningly animated sequence depicting Jake’s grief—he cries for nearly five minutes. The scene doesn’t cut short his tears or the uncomfortable audio of his sobs. Instead, Plympton forces us to sit with Jake for this extended sequence in order for us to only begin to feel Jake’s anguish. The stark take on agony is something of cartoony wonder.

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It should be noted that the animation style of Cheatin’ is remarkably beautiful. It’s shaky hand-drawn, hyper-focused animation. Plympton wastes not a single frame or second. The animation, at time, boarders on the grotesque. No, not an American Horror Story style of grotesquery, but rather just in how the animation presents the human body and the human…sound landscape. Both Ella and Jake are disturbingly skinny, and yet have full heads and lanky legs. Jake is ridiculously buff while Ella has absurdly green eyes. Their…sounds, too…I can’t get over them. Each blink is accented with a moist clap, each bite of food is as if their tonsils were miked. It adds a depth of closeness to this couple that we often only get though gooey-eyed looks.

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Ultimately, Cheatin’ is a story of two people desperately in love. They try to figure out how deep this love goes. Jake cannot cheat his way out of a broken heart. Ella cannot magically (and vicariously) screw Jake to the truth. Unfortunately, there are a few sticky fumblings around not only the plot (i.e. the impetus for the title) but its gender politics. Women can come off desperate and conniving, while there’s a mix of slut shaming going on. But the heavily stylized animation and the compelling central story of Jake and Ella vastly overshadow whatever faults are present in the foundation of the story.

I cannot recommend this film enough. Figure out a way to see it and check out the Cheatin‘s website. Bill Plympton is also in contention this year for Best Animated Short Film for his work on Footprints. Will he be the first person to be a double nominee in both animated categories? I sure hope so!