This review originally ran as part of Paste’s Sundance 2022 coverage.
Secret first loves, cliquish mean girls and strained family dynamics take their most disquieting turns in Piggy (Cerdita), Spanish director Carlota Pereda’s feature debut. Expanding upon her 2018 short of the same name, the film focuses on a fat teenage girl named Sara (Laura Galán) who endures intolerance from her peers over the size of her body. Though the film’s sensitive subject matter is handled with mindful grit—never once basking in the humiliating gaze fellow teens cast upon Sara’s body—it doesn’t necessarily succeed in subverting similar narrative conventions, nor does it meaningfully transgress societal perceptions of fatness or girlhood.
In her small Extremadura town, Sara is the subject of unyielding persecution. Due to her weight, she is given the nickname “Piggy,” always blurted by her abusers with venomous hostility. On a scorching summer’s day, Sara dons an ordinary pink bikini and heads to the public pool, only to be met with a noxious pack of mean girls led by the senselessly callous Maca (Claudia Salas). Maca begins to corral the girls into taunting Sara over her body, nearly drowning her with a water net before she eventually frees herself. While one of the girls, Claudia (Irene Ferreiro), clearly finds Maca’s behavior wrong, she doesn’t intervene or defend Sara. Thus the girls run off with Sara’s clothes and possessions, forcing her to walk home under the hot Spanish sun clad only in her bikini. It’s not long before Sara is attacked again, this time by a car full of boys. They chase Sara down the road, stop their vehicle and begin to manhandle her, threatening violence and mocking her appearance. After she escapes their clutches, she runs sobbing down a rural dirt road—where she witnesses the mean girls from earlier being loaded into an unmarked van. Though they bang on the window and plead for Sara to help them, she merely stares as the man in the driver’s seat assesses whether or not she’ll cause him trouble. When her expression guarantees secrecy, the man tosses a towel for Sara out of the window—a wordless pact that promises their mutual protection. In Pereda’s original short, this synopsis encompasses the entirety of the film; in this feature, the secret shared between Sara and the girls’ abductor morphs into lusty desire. Though certainly an effective commentary on the messy intricacies of budding sexuality, it holds back a certain raw dubiousness in favor of clear-cut moral grandstanding.
The film is clearly in conversation with Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, which contains nearly all of the themes Piggy tackles, but manages to feel much more rebellious and assertive in its thesis. Both works deal with an adolescent girl grappling with her ostensible position as “undesirable” in stark comparison to other women (Anaïs’ older sister Elena in Fat Girl, Sara’s popular girl bullies in Piggy). The two films also have their lead characters conceal heinous acts committed by men against women. Yet Fat Girl is committed to indicting the psychological brainwashing young girls experience when struggling with sexual repression and self-loathing, while Piggy employs a redemption arc for Sara that feels flaccid in comparison. It’s as if every character in the film is tasked with learning a one-note lesson: bullying is bad, but being an impartial bystander is probably even worse. This stymies the stakes before they can properly be erected, resulting in a morality play that ultimately appears uncomfortable with its own violent streak. The ambiguity of Pereda’s 2018 short feels better suited to the tale she’s trying to tell, with the film cutting after Sara’s wordless contract with the killer. The gut-punch reveal of the only person offering Sara kindness in her hometown being a grisly serial killer instills a twisted truth about the ubiquity of fatphobic cruelty in our culture, something that just doesn’t hit as hard with the revised romantic subplot.
However, the intention of Pereda’s script and DP Rita Noriega’s lens is deeply felt throughout, a commitment to portraying these women as wholly as possible. Though the brunt of Sara’s mistreatment is in the form of abject verbal abuse (aside from the pool net drowning and drive-by harassment), it is also the only tangible violence the audience sees committed against a woman. Sara’s tormentors are kidnapped and there’s talk of a local woman being murdered in her home, but the camera never captures the physical brutality these women suffer. There’s plenty of bloodshed—particularly during the film’s concrete-walled conclusion—but it’s never due to exploitative female torture. For this mindful departure from most exploitation films of the same vein, Piggy deserves plenty of props.
Nonetheless, it still feels like there’s something missing. What’s present is so incredibly promising that it’s almost disappointing the film doesn’t wrestle with something bigger than bullying. Had it addressed the toxic beauty standards that continue to plague young women despite widespread efforts to adopt “body positivity,” Piggy could have ascended to becoming a notable pioneer of “body image horror.” In only asserting that bullying due to difference is morally detestable, Pereda fails to actually address the mechanisms of our culture which uphold fatphobic misogyny as one of its principal pillars. It’s easy enough for audiences to agree that body shaming is repugnant—but how ready are we to reckon with the ways we are already indoctrinated into a fatphobic, misogynistic culture?
Director: Carlota Pereda
Writer: Carlota Pereda
Stars: Laura Galán, Richard Holmes, Carmen Machi, Irene Ferreiro, Camille Aguilar, Claudia Salas
Release Date: January 24, 2022 (Sundance)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.