This review is from a screening at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.
When moviegoers consider the realm of animated film, particularly Western audiences, most would be hard pressed to think of a feature they saw recently that did not come from mega-computer production houses such as Pixar or Dreamworks Animation, and even more rarely does the subject matter venture beyond the imaginative but thematically sparse 5-15 year old demographic. In the age of spectacle-as-product animation, Bill Plympton has procured a staggering body of work, including scores of animated shorts and features, and has carved out a unique space alongside Don Hertzfeldt as the voice of western independent animation. Plympton’s latest feature, Cheatin’, the story of a married couple going through a challenging time in their relationship, is his largest undertaking to date. During a post-screening Q & A, Plympton referred to Cheatin’ (which includes over 40,000 hand-drawn frames) as a “labor of Love,” and it certainly shows. Although the film may not have much new to say about marriage, the way it says it more than compensates.
Jake and Ella meet at an amusement park in one of the more perilous moments you will ever see at a bumper car track. Ella seems fully absorbed in herself as the other men at the park ogle her to nearly comedic—if not so disturbing—lengths. Jake becomes the object of her affection seemingly because he is the only man who fails to fawn over her every move, and after a harrowing rescue, a spark (literally) forms between then.
Like many young couples, their relationship is mainly characterized by physical intimacy. One particularly comical example of this occurs shortly after their wedding where we pan through their neglected home (sinks overflowing, small fires in the kitchen, wind blowing papers through an open window) to find them passionately under the covers in their bedroom. This honeymoon period goes on for some time until another woman plots to push them apart. Specifically, she convinces Jake that Ella has been unfaithful, and Jake responds by bedding numerous women at a seedy motel just outside of town. When Ella learns of Jake’s infidelity, she is heartbroken, but she grieves much differently than Jake. With the hopes of winning him back, Ella enlists the help of a mysterious stage magician and his peculiar “soul machine,” which allows Ella to inhabit the bodies of the women Jake is sleeping with.
The blend of dreams and reality works on a number of levels in Cheatin’. On the surface, Plympton’s animation stretches the imagination, creating a world both familiar and fantastical. But even deeper is how the theme plays into Ella and Jake and their perceptions of this world around them. Body proportions are distorted and their hopes and dreams are manifested in strikingly imaginative ways. It serves to pose some interesting questions about how we view our significant others (in a similar vein with David Fincher’s Gone Girl), and in the case of Jake and Ella, it points to the fact that these two are oblivious to everything but their own desires.
And according to Plympton, it may be the product of our predilections surrounding gender roles. While his panels may function as a window to a refreshingly unique take on animation, they also act as a mirror in subverting stereotypes of men and women. As a result there are no easy answers in for Jake and Ella when it comes to what makes a successful marriage, only the comfort that they have each other to face life’s questions together. Plympton acknowledges this in his art; beautiful in its imperfection, and—also like marriage itself—a lot of hard work.