This review of Carlota Pereda’s Piggy is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.
Are human monsters born, or are they made? Does a life of suffering at the hands of others make someone more likely to become an abuser themselves, or can that urge be stifled by something stronger? The concept of nature vs nurture sits at the center of many films about brutal people, and while it’s never directly raised by writer/director Carlota Pereda‘s solo feature debut, it’s a question sitting at the heart of Piggy all the same.
Sara (Laura Galán) is the butcher’s daughter in a small Spanish town, and while her parents love her in their own generic ways they’re missing the truth behind her daily life. Overweight and shy, Sara is bullied her peers on a regular basis to the point that she’ll only visit the town’s community pool when everyone else has gone home. Her latest attempt at a quiet swim is interrupted, though, by both a silent stranger minding his own business and a trio of mean girls. One of them, Claudia (Irene Ferreiro), was once Sara’s friend before falling in with the cool kids, but now she’s every bit as cruel. The girls taunt Sara, nearly drown her, and then steal her clothes and towel before running away.
Forced to walk home in her bikini, Sara is shamed and harassed by a passing car of boys before coming upon a truck stopped at the side of the road. There’s blood on the rear window, and inside is Claudia screaming for help as she locks eyes with Sara before the driver peels off down the road. Sara returns home… and tells no one.
Piggy works well as an uncomfortable slice of horror, but there’s no denying its powerful and explorative commentary on empathy. The film’s first act sees Sara endure a litany of abuse — it’s contained, but it’s emotionally brutal to the point that it might be too much for some viewers. That’s the point, though, as this is a reality for far too many young people. It leaves the audience wishing ill on the bullies, but does that extend to wanting to see them tortured and slaughtered by a vicious serial killer? And will the pain Sara’s endured see her wishing the same? And can we blame her?
Galán nails the emotional core of Sara’s existence with Piggy, a life fueled by rage, suffering, and embarrassment where the only relief comes from tuning out the world with her headphones. Her hesitancy to share what she knows, to help in the search for the missing girls, feels easily understandable even as it feels so wrong. And the issue tightens further when Sara’s inaction tips over into complicity.
It’s not just about the bullies getting what they deserve for Sara, as the unnamed killer (Richard Holmes) is also the only one in this bitchy little town to show her an ounce of kindness. First by tossing her clothes back before driving away with his captives, and later through small acts like leaving her favorite snack at her home. Sara may be an innately good person, but a lifetime of abuse may have worn down her natural humanity to the point of allowing cruelty towards others to go unchecked. But will she cross a line and actually take part in the carnage?
Piggy asks and answers these questions and more, and it creates a rich little world of befuddled cops, random corpses, and cruelties both petty and intense. Pereda’s film is a condemnation of bullying in all its forms, from blatant acts to throwaway comments made by concerned parents and tactless neighbors. It’s difficult to criticize Sara’s fear and hesitancy to help, and while you hope she doesn’t cross that line you fully understand her desire to.
Pereda and cinematographer Rita Noriega shoot Piggy in 1.33:1, a box capturing the confines of Sara’s life and the world as she knows it. That includes moments ranging from the somber and suspenseful to action beats as conflict meets resolution. Much of what we see is close enough to smell, whether it be the chlorine in the pool or the blood drenching Sara’s clothes, and it’s only at the end that the film pulls back to allow a feeling of relaxed freedom. It may be short-lived as both action and inaction have consequences, but it’s well-earned all the same.
Piggy isn’t an easy watch, but there’s catharsis in Sara’s journey from beaten down victim to someone capable of taking on the world. She comes out the other side, but the wounds remain with her the way they do with anyone who’s endured ridicule, abuse, and bullying. Words cut, sometimes sharper and deeper than blades, but the corpses they leave behind are typically still breathing.