Carlota Pereda’s debut feature, Piggy, takes horror’s revenge trope and twists it just so. It isn’t so simple as a much-abused underdog getting a freakish chance to get her payback and painting the landscape with her enemies’ dispatched blood and guts, though in this case, as in many cases, you might forgive her if she did. Bullying is at the forefront of Piggy. Our heroine, Sara (Laura Galán), is fat, and because of that, she becomes a target. “Piggy” is what some of the local hotties, with their popular-kid penchant for social cruelty, call Sara both to her face and online, snapping photos of her at her parents’ butcher shop, surrounded by flayed swine and raw meats destined for their parents’ dinner tables, and posting them on Instagram. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about Sara’s weight. Her own mother, Asun (Carmen Machi), is nearly split in two by the dilemma, growing both unbearably reproachful when discussing Sara’s weight with Sara and ironically protective when discussing Sara’s weight with anyone else. Sara, meanwhile, sputters and trudges along like someone who’s been bullied into a pulp, dipping into her secret stash of snacks when she’s stressed, keeping to herself.
There’s the teasing and the prodding and the loud whispers — the joke people seem to make of Sara’s existence. And then there’s the pair of mishaps at the local pool that sets Piggy’s gears into motion: an encounter between Sara and the mean girls that nearly results in her drowning, and another, more mysterious encounter between Sara, the mean girls, and an unknown man, credited as El desconocido (and played by Richard Holmes), that latter of which results in two people dead, three girls missing, and a reluctant Sara left behind as the only witness. For Sara, these events are impossible to disentangle. One moment, she’s being forced to walk home in her bathing suit because her clothes and phone have been stolen by her bullies; the next, that mysterious man, who’d made eye contact with her at the pool, is throwing her a towel to cover herself up. Never mind the bloody handprint at the back of his truck, or the fact that the towel belongs to one of Sara’s bullies — it’s the first time someone in the film has shown Sara any grace.
That’s the kind of movie Piggy is. The stress-eating, the infantile mumbling, the excessive bullying, the cache of fat-girl snacks, the heroine so desperate for any form of affection that she’s momentarily dickmatized by a serial murderer of all people — it’s a recipe for condescension, practically a Bingo card of bad tropes primed to be picked apart by the gatekeepers of representation. Or it would be — if we were meant to be disgusted by Sara. Pereda skillfully takes what would otherwise merely be grotesque imagery, cheap shots at Sara’s expense, and bends them toward something more wry, cruelty depicted not as an endorsement but with an eye for making us see that cruelty for what it is. We get to be beguiled by Sara, in sync with her as the movie guides her through a series of near-comic situations involving her family and the broader community and a handful of unfavorable choices, chief among them being whether or not she’ll stick her neck out for a bunch of girls she hates. Everyone wants to know what’s happened. It’s increasingly clear that Sara knows something; people who’ve never cared a lick about her are clamoring for her attention. Soon, her mother is going to try to stick her on a salad diet, and Sara is going to discover one of her favorite snacks on her windowsill, planted by — who else? — the mysterious man. It raises questions about the motivations behind all of that murderly sympathy. Is he obsessed with her? Is he trying to plump her up a la Hansel and Gretel? Or is it manipulation of the sole witness, pure and simple?
Desperation can make anyone kind. That’s one takeaway from Piggy. Another is that Galán is an actor worth keeping an eye on, a very canny choice for a movie so poised to walk tonal tightropes, drifting between misery and humor, shame and shamelessness. Sara’s most candid moments are when she’s at home, hanging around in her underwear, comfortable enough to meet her mother’s criticisms of her weight by pointing out that mom is fat, too. Even as the film’s last act grows wearyingly indecisive — the pile-up of cross-intentions and inverted tropes that defines the movie finally collapses in on itself, and the movie suffers for it a little — its star completely commits to the ugliness of it all. As does Holmes’ desconocido. What he lacks in psychology, he more than makes up for in third-rail intrigue, lurking throughout Piggy with his cold stare and illegible intentions, stirring up mystery while also being completely, unambiguously dangerous. His presence makes clear how much of Piggy rests on a question of desire — Sara’s desire. Desire is double-edged. The unknown man clearly knows this. By the end, so does she.