This review is part of our double feature on Marie Ullrich. Please also see our interview with Marie.
The Alley Cat (2014). United States, 66 minutes. Directed by Marie Ullrich. Starring: Jenny Strubin, Omero Arreola, and Dana Bernadine.
I knew I would enjoy The Alley Cat as soon as I watched its emotionally raw and mysterious first scene. An engaging protagonist, riveting shots of a night bike ride, and a gradually unfolding plot will keep your eyes tied to the screen until the film’s very end.
Jasper (Jenny Strubin) is a young bicycle messenger who rides the streets of Chicago. After a lighthearted bike race takes an unexpected dark turn, she pedals down urban streets to pay a visit to her sister and her family. On her late-night journey, Jasper encounters a threatening stalker, a distressed homeless woman, and a kind café waitress as she struggles to deal with her overwhelming grief and guilt. Strubin uses her entire body — gaunt frame, bent posture, expressive face, and soft voice — to effectively portray a struggling young woman who just wants to do the right thing but doesn’t quite manage.
Shot on-site in Chicago, The Alley Cat showcases its urban location with captivating filmwork — Chicago takes on a life of its own. As cyclists zoom down city alleyways, light from street lamps, shop interiors, and car headlights stream across the background creating a surreal atmosphere; it is as if the bike messengers have exited their usual mundane lives and entered an eery in-between world in which the cares of reality are temporarily pushed aside.
The bike riding shots are joined by scenes of dialogue amongst the messengers. Their group is obviously a friendly one, evidenced by their witty banter and playful teasing. One very drunk bicyclist, Briggs, specifically serves as a needed comic element. “Everyone is invited [to my after party],” Augusto, another cyclist, declares jokingly at the start of the race. “Except Briggs. He still owes me beer money.” Briggs curses and staggers as everyone laughs. Audiences can tell that bike messengers are struggling to make ends meet, but the cyclists find consolation in their collective experience, using the race as a way to escape the worries of their everyday lives.
Jasper is part of this camaraderie, but her reserved personality makes it difficult for her to connect meaningfully with the others. At one of the first race checkpoints, the supervisor there tries to engage with her, letting her take only one fruit as a weight when she technically should take six. “Good luck!” he says, giving her a warm grin. Jasper’s quick reply, “I don’t need it,” exemplifies her need to keep those around her at a distance. Her relationship with her sister is similarly strained; voice over of a call between the two siblings is played while Jasper rides, showing audiences how their tension-filled relationship often haunts Jasper’s thoughts. In this way, Jasper is a unique female protagonist; her loner mentality and lack of makeup set her apart from the physically flawless, easily likeable girls who are usually featured on film. These are the type of women we want and need to see more of — those who are nuanced and realistic, ones female viewers can relate to.
In one particularly frightening scene, Ullrich further develops Jasper’s complex character while also presenting an all-too-relevant issue: stalking. Jasper is riding down a dark road when a car pulls up next to her. The man behind the wheel begins to catcall and verbally assault her: “Hey baby, want to party?…You look really good on that bike, babe. I’d like to take you on a real ride.” To escape the driver, Jasper is forced to turn down a poorly lit side street and hide in a neighborhood park. The stalker then attempts to find her; Jasper crouches down to avoid being seen. A close-up of Jasper’s face reveals the fear in her eyes, a fear that lingers even after the car has vanished from sight. After dark is never a safe time to be alone in a city, but it is especially so, as we are reminded here, for women. This scene allows both male and female audiences to enter the mind of the stalked, inviting them to share in the victim’s terror. Jasper, however, is not a helpless victim; in this situation, she shows great resourcefulness by taking her safety into her own hands. Audiences not only empathize with Jasper, they respect her, an element of dignity that is often missing from narratives of female victimization.
You won’t want to miss one small detail of Jasper’s physical and emotional journey, especially at the end. The last scenes reward attentive viewers with a secret that will surely tug at your heartstrings. Ullrich’s decision to make Jasper complex and difficult to like is not only satisfying but also an important step forward in a film world often saturated with flat, unsatisfying female characters.