The youngest daughter in The Strange Little Cat is the nearest approximation to my seven year old daughter I have seen in cinema. Zürcher catalogs the little adult responsibilities she wants to experience, like pushing plastic bottles into the recycling machine. He pays attention to the thoughts percolating after she hears something very adult about the world, like the fate of the sparrows outside if she stops feeding them. It is clear that these little thoughts she has are important to the film, part of its reason for being. And even her size is important to Zürcher, the camera often letting us feel how short she is in this tall, looming, adult world whorling about her.

We could also say something similar about the mother in this deeply strange film, because Zürcher pays the same attention to her. One of the pattern of edits in the film involves connecting a gaze with an object, usually another family member. The mother spends a great deal of time in this formal web networking everyone scattered about the kitchen and hallway (the spaces that comprise the bulk of the film).  But as the day passes, the convention begins to feel more like we have been walking on a series of tightropes with Zürcher – the exposure of subtle grievances and irritations making these line of sight connections tenuous and fraught with portent.

But there are other patterns of edits as well.

One of these patterns floods the film with an odd sort of suspense. At times the kitchen is so full of this family that the frame is crowded with someone’s elbow or back, or a dog, or a cat, or a bunch of stuff on the table. In these sequences, Zürcher’s rules of composition are all out of whack and we feel the busyness of their morning routine. Yet, as the film demonstrates, physical proximity does not equal emotional or psychology intimacy.

Throughout The Strange Little Cat these family members tell stories to each other about something they recently experienced (which we can hear as long as someone doesn’t start the blender mid-sentence). Two of these stories are about being in movie theaters and feeling vulnerable because we are either crowded in with a bunch of bodies foreign to us or we are completely alone in the dark and just waiting for someone to strangle us from behind when the projectionist takes a break. This meta-commentary on cinema embedded in the film makes sense of the complicated thing Zürcher is doing, which is trying to find a way to push that sense of dislocation and vulnerability past the viewing experience and into the frame itself. Herein is the suspense of The Strange Little Cat.

Another pattern of edits involves the brief escape of the camera from this domestic drama as it captures close-ups of objects around and outside the house in manicured stills. These sequences are as poignant and lyrical as the periodic soundtrack. Oranges, birds, bottles, etc… become part of the material narrative Zürcher is concocting out of what would otherwise disappear in the background. So a bottle on the stove spins in the pot, inexplicably. It becomes “magical.” The stills that punctuate the film are exquisite, magical. But then people flit in and out of the frame, sometimes beheaded by medium shots. Their speech doesn’t always match the plane of action. Their conversations are annoyingly pregnant with vague emotional subtext. So everything also becomes “nuts.” The dog is “nuts,” the cat is “nuts,” even the birds and possibly grandma are “nuts.”

This binary scheme of “magical” or “nuts” is essentially the drama of The Strange Little Cat, one of the best films I have seen in the past few years. Though the film at times hints at much darker subtexts than are present in its exchanges – its kindness, its clarity, and its crafted denial of an ironic pose is refreshing.  It can be seen starting this week at Fandor.

Also be sure to check out this great conversation about the film between Darren Hughes and Blake Williams from the 2013 AFI Fest.