Alternate Reality TV: The Racialicious Review of Cat Scratch Fever

By Guest Contributor Kendra James

Kara Elverson and Starla Gill (l-r). Courtesy: Fight Dirty Films

Lisa Duva’s directoral debut, Cat Scratch Fever, is many things. At its surface the hour-long film works as a cautionary tale about the millennial generation and our tendency to always be “plugged in” but, even as it verges on science-fiction dramady, it offers an interesting glance into female friendships and identities.

The movie follows Lisa and Ashley (Starsha Gill and Kara Elverson, respectively), who discover that using their computer screens they can watch an infinite number of alternate versions of themselves living out all possibilities of their own lives. Though this gives them the ability to explore their own identities, it also means watching them spiral as they lose track of which reality they’re actually living in.

The two women  become obsessed with themselves like the rest of us might become obsessed with contestants on The Bachelor or the women of any of the Real Housewives franchises. There are an infinite amount of alternate dimensions for them to watch, but both become obsessed with one where Ashley finds a version of herself in a seemingly happy relationship with their neighbor and Lisa finds one where she appears to be a single mother with a toddler daughter to dote over. This modified self-obsession deepens until each of them is forced to choose where they want their “off-camera” life to go.

However, before we explore their possible identities we’re given a glimpse into the people they really are. Their friendship is central to the film and, while the way it’s written seems atypical to usual media standards, it feels more “real” than most filmed female friendships. Duva spoke about this choice with The L Magazine:

Q. How do you see female friendship usually presented in films or TV, and how is that different from your experience of it?

A. I feel like 90% of the time, the show or film gets it wrong. So often, women are portrayed as catty or jealous of one another or just completely obsessed with men and shopping and their journalism careers … I feel no more jealously towards my female friends than I do towards my male friends…The women I know are really smart, funny, silly, tough, vulnerable, affectionate, open, complicated, and they tend to show more layers of themselves when they feel like they are in “safe zones,” which are typically around other women they love.

Courtesy: Fight Dirty Films

The film was shot over a period of two years, but the way it depicts the central relationship is well in line with many current female comedies. The duo’s frank comfort with each other’s bodies and ease of conversation is more reminiscent of what one might see on Girls or Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23. For Lisa and Ashley friendship is initially tactile and without filter. In one scene Lisa jokingly begs Ashley to climb into bed with her, saying that they could spoon and she could be the little spoon. They touch, cuddle, and hug, and comfort each other sporadically and unprompted like any pair of friends would. Allowing this to be shown, and doing it without the filter of a sexual gaze, creates a very natural feel to their own dimension, which gives more power to the scenes where their friendship strains against their new pastime.

Duva doesn’t reference  any television shows in the film; instead Fever owes much to films like Celine and Julie Go Boating, Daisies, and the paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat. In the visuals used to show Lisa and Ashley’s lives in alternate dimensions, though, there are several touches of other inspirations–particularly within the life Lisa finds herself embedded in as a mother, an attachment that plays out diastrously in this reality.

Between the natural light (the film has little, if any, staged lighting), the drums accompanying much of her fantasy, and the focus on the connection between Lisa and her (technically) unborn child, Fever is also reminiscent of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, a Black independent film that deals with different subject matter but also dabbles in elements of the supernatural and fantastic and female relationships.

Fever isn’t a perfect film, and I believe it could have benefitted from higher production values, and a tighter and longer script that would have allowed it to fully explore the critique on reality television and being constantly “plugged in,” along with being able to expand on the alternate dimensions presented. However, to capture any tendril of Dash’s film in a feature debut is impressive and is something for Duva to be proud of. Beyond Duva’s ambitious subject matter lies an excellent look at female friendships that isn’t just rarely seen in science-fiction, but in most popular media.

Cat Scratch Fever (dir. Lisa Duva) debuted on June 2, 2012 as part of the Brooklyn Film Festival where it won for Best Editing and also took home the Audience Award for Best Feature Film.