Bitch

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Jason Ritter in Marianna Palka's Bitch - A woman snaps under crushing life pressures and assumes the psyche of a vicious dog. Her philandering, absentee husband is forced to become reacquainted with his four children and sister-in-law as they attempt to keep the family together during this bizarre crisis.
"A tight little film that could have been disastrous if mishandled."

"We've found Mom!" say the kids excitedly, some eight to 30 hours after she goes missing (their Dad, played by Jason Ritter, can't remember when he last saw her). But Mom (Marianna Palka, who also directs) isn't what Dad expected. Perhaps he should have taken her suicide attempt more seriously. Perhaps he should have got her the help she asked for. Down in the basement, snarling and vicious, Mom has rediscovered herself as a dog.

A tight little film that could have been disastrous if mishandled, Bitch takes a challenging premise and turns it into the smartest left-of-field take on mental health issues since Frank. A hit at at this year's Fantasia film festival, it explores what happens when fantasy becomes reality, and does so with sensitivity and skill. But its genius is not in the story of Mom's transformation into a dog, deftly handled though that is; it's in the story of Dad's transformation into a human being.

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Dad loves his family but, in traditional comedy style, knows very little about them. Even little things like handling the school run go hopelessly wrong when he has to deal with them alone. His high pressure job - which made him feel happy and superior as the breadwinner - turns out to have no time for employees with personal lives. In desperation, he turns to the female members of the extended family for help, but there's a danger in that - if he's incompetent without Mom to look after him, they may decide that the best option is to remove the kids from his care.

The early part of this film offers a succession of familiar comic mishaps which invite us to play along with old fashioned notions that men are out of their depth when faced with 'women's work', but Bitch is a much cleverer film than this might suggest. It quickly presents us with examples of men who do know what they're doing - the children's grandfather, for one - and suggests that Dad's hopelessness lies not in his maleness but in the myths he's bought into regarding what that means. It's also sympathetic to his plight. The more he comes to understand about how hard his wife has been working to hold everything together, the more he comes to realise that he doesn't want to be the way he is. He also, very clearly, loves his wife, but there's a hint that he might previously have forgotten how much. Now he's faced with the task of winning her back when none of the usual bribery, pleading or bullying will work. The only hing she is still able to understand is genuine emotional honesty.

To regain his humanity - and thereby hers - Dad has to let go of his notions of proper civilised behaviour and engage with the animal. This results in scenes that are both hilarious and deeply moving. He must embrace not only hard work but also fun, and learn to let go of his fears. Palka handles this process with complete assurance. The characters are deep and complex, the action engaging, the answers often obvious but never easy. Bitch is a triumph.

Reviewed on: 18 Jul 2017
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A woman snaps under crushing life pressures and assumes the psyche of a vicious dog. Her philandering, absentee husband is forced to become reacquainted with his four children and sister-in-law as they attempt to keep the family together during this bizarre crisis.
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