Signal Horizon

See Beyond

{Sundance Film Festival} PIGGY – First-Look Review

Set during a sweltering Spanish summer, PIGGY is a layered horror on the merciless violence of bullying and body shaming.

Writer and director Carlota Pereda expands her 2018 award-winning short movie into a 90-minute feature presented in the Midnight strand of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The short leaves many questions unanswered as protagonist Sara (Laura Galán), relentlessly tormented over her weight, is presented with a moral dilemma when her bullies are assailed in front of her very eyes. Will she help those who have been nothing but horrible to her?

PIGGY goes well beyond that open finale, bringing the audience on a psychological journey with Sara. An excellent Galán reprises the role of this young woman fighting to reclaim her place in the world, a wallflower turning into a powerful, raging goddess.

PIGGY focuses on the horror of bullying

In a sleepy Extremadura village, the protagonist spends the holidays hiding away in her parents’ butcher shop, scrolling on social media to spy on the mean girls who make her life unbearable.

A few minutes into this film, it’s clear that there’s no safe haven for Sara and her non-conforming body. She is bullied in the streets by her fake friends, who unimaginatively call her Piggy and make a point of shaming her on Instagram. Yet, Sara’s family isn’t all that kind either. Her strict, demanding mother (Carmen Machi) taxes her with casual verbal abuse and psychological vexations, while her gleeful father (Julián Valcárcel) and spiteful younger brother often witness their clashes in silence.

Looking for some respite on a hot afternoon, Sara goes to the local pool where she meets her three bullies. The perfect-looking clique is made up of a queen bee type, Maca (Claudia Salas), and her friends, Roci (Camille Aguilar) and Claudia (Irene Ferreiro). The latter is somewhat less of a supporter of the abuse, yet wouldn’t intervene to stop the other two.

On a cruel whim, Maca tries to drown Sara with a pool skimmer net, unaware that a mysterious man (Richard Holmes) is looking. This is an infuriating scene, so hard to watch one almost overlooks the grim, if brief, sight of a corpse in the pool — is that even real? Sara manages to break free, but not before the trio steals her backpack and clothes, forcing her to walk home with nothing but her bikini on. 

Flipping the Victim Narrative

On her way back to the village, tables turn as Sara spots the unknown man kidnapping her bullies. It’s a frantic moment, as one of the girls tries to get Sara’s attention in order for her to go get help. Unexpectedly, a kind gesture from the assailant has Sara confused and leaves room for her moral compass to spin uncontrollably. Terrified and complicit, the protagonist lets the man go, and her three beaten-up bullies with him, off to what doesn’t seem like a happy ending.

PIGGY explores the devastating consequences of Sara’s inaction. In just a few minutes, Sara goes from being bullied to becoming a potential assailant, flipping the script on the narrative of a helpless victim. As the village is torn by a series of deaths and disappearances, Sara realizes her connection to the attacker is significantly more dangerous than she anticipated.

Pereda isn’t afraid to ask complex questions related to one’s moral responsibility and fascination with evil. Seeing a revenge fantasy suddenly materialize could be intoxicating for anyone, let alone for a young woman who has been so vilely abused by her peers. Cinematographer Rita Noriega follows Sara as her body and her suppressed anger take center stage as she navigates the prying village and her smothering family. 

Blending classic horror references (from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Carrie) into a relevant, fresh story, PIGGY is exciting and Galán is its absolute star, committed to the role in its most challenging aspects.

PIGGY explores an uncomfortable bond

PIGGY dives deep into many an uncomfortable topic, with the relationship between Sara and the assailant likely to elicit strong reactions. Sometimes framed like a romance, this scary, visceral bond taps into the glamorization of evil men. Sara is equally curious and scared, drawn to this undoubtedly bad person who is surprisingly not just nice to her, but interested in her. Pereda makes a point of showing how this unlikely relationship isn’t freeing for Sara, a girl used to be tossed and bossed around. It’s when this mysterious man wants Sara to comply with his plan that she cracks, and the film descends into the bad boyfriend trope, not uncommon for a female-led, horror-tinged story.

Despite the tight runtime, the third act drags for too long before getting to the inevitably twisty, jaw-dropping epilogue. While the more graphic scenes are reserved for this showdown, it’s the first part of PIGGY, with its hyperrealistic bullying segments, that’s hardest to digest.

Nonetheless, the crude finale is guaranteed to leave viewers with some food for thought. It’s commendable that Pereda never attempts to provide any clear answer, empathizing with Sara till the bitter end. PIGGY thrives in the grey areas of morality and puts Pereda on the map of horror filmmakers we need to see behind the camera again very soon.