Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sundance ’17: Bitch

Jill is a bit like Gregor Samsa, but more aggressive. One night, the constant presence of her four bratty kids and the constant absence of her workaholic husband Bill just makes her snap. In this case, snapping means acting like a feral dog. Family dysfunction turns barking mad in Marianna Palka’s Bitch, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Maybe the stray that had been howling in their yard was a portent or perhaps a source of inspiration. Regardless, one morning Jill just up and disappears, leaving an unprepared Bill to get the kids off to their respective schools (of course, he would not know what and where they were). That afternoon, the kids discover they have a case of good news-bad news on their hands. Their mom has been on the basement the whole time, but she has been barking, crawling on all fours, and generally defecating like a canine.

This comes at a particularly awkward time for Bill, given his company’s precarious financial situation. Yet, he is kind of-sort of able to rise to the challenge of corralling the kids. However, dealing with Jill is a different story. In fact, he and his in-laws have very different ideas about the proper level of care she should receive.

Frankly, Bitch is a slippery film to get a proper grip on. Its status as a midnight selection and a SpectreVision production will prime cult fans for something more in keeping with scatological extremity. Then the opening scene and central premise lend themselves to a traditional feminist interpretation. Nevertheless, it is good old Bill who emerges as the unlikely hero, who keeps his family together as best he can, learning not so subtle lessons along the way.

Jason Ritter is indeed terrific as Bill. He is the sort of everyman who lost his way that Tom Hanks is just too old to play anymore. Whether he is having a primal scream or reconnecting with his baffled kids, there is always something very genuine about his performance. Jaime King contrasts and complements him well as Jill’s sister, who is both a source of support and criticism. Palka herself definitely goes for broke as Jill. Among the Hellions, Brighton Sharbino stands out as the eldest pre-teen.

Just with its title, Bitch promises audiences edgy and transgressive subject matter that it never really delivers. Instead, it offers up an admittedly extreme domestic drama with surprising emotional heft. It could very well be the most counter-intuitive film at Sundance, disappointing those most anticipating it, while sneaking up on leerier viewers. It is a real mixed bag, but Ritter and King carry it over the finish line. Recommended for the adventurous, but not too adventurous, Bitch screens again Tuesday (1/24) in Salt Lake and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.