Midway through Porcupine, a character we’ve just met tosses aside an empty plastic bag during a backyard barbecue. From his perspective, it’s an insignificant gesture, done without a moment’s thought. For us, however, it’s one that reveals everything we need to know about the guy: his carelessness, his bluntness, his irritability. Porcupine feels most alive in tiny moments like these, which seem to contain entire lifetimes in the most casual of details — though its focus tends to blur when it comes to the bigger picture.
Written and directed by M. Cahill, the drama seems at first to be headed in the direction of extreme quirkiness, opening with a title card that indicates “a surprising amount of what follows is true.” Jena Malone stars as Audrey, a young woman who seems to be in a constant state of transition — sometimes forced upon her by external challenges (as when she’s evicted from her apartment for not making the rent) and sometimes spurred by her own internal restlessness (as when she toys with the idea of moving to Vermont, because why not). Still, there’s something within her that yearns for deeper, more permanent roots. So after a restless night spent going down a YouTube rabbit hole about pet adoption, she puts herself up for adoption as an adult, and soon meets a retired couple named Sunny (Emily Kuroda) and Otto (Robert Hunger-Bühler).
The Bottom Line
Fine details make this a touching, if familiar, story of companionship.
While Sunny and Audrey hit it off first, it’s Audrey’s relationship with Otto that forms the emotional spine of the movie. Where Audrey is unfailingly courteous, Otto is brusque to the point of coldness; he can’t so much as answer a polite question from Audrey about his old job at NASA without scoffing that she couldn’t possibly understand without a degree in aeronautical engineering. But both are fundamentally lonely people, nearly estranged from their blood relations and apparently without close friends. Theirs is a slow and tentative bond, built between two people who can’t quite bring themselves to admit what they mean to one another, though each is moved by the other’s capacity for compassion and consideration.
Cahill approaches their story with a delicate touch. His script is light on dramatic confrontations and epiphanies, and his visuals likewise shy away from intense contrast or bold hues — the whole thing looks like it takes place under a bright but cloudy sky. Though the characters have tragedy in their respective pasts, the film slips in just as much backstory as we need to understand how they’ve come to where they are now. A phone call between Audrey and her mother makes it immediately apparent why she’d be eager to find new parents, for example, even if we’re given few specifics on why their conversation feels so chilly and strained.
And Cahill trusts Malone and Hunger-Bühler’s attentive performances to set the temperature of their characters’ relationship day by day. One of Malone’s gifts as an actor, evident in everything from Donnie Darko to The Neon Demon, is a gaze that seems to miss nothing. In Porcupine, she’s complemented by a performance from Hunger-Bühler that demands careful attention — his Otto is a man who barely seems to change expression whether he’s experiencing amusement or profound regret.
Even with Malone and Hunger-Bühler’s chemistry, however, it’s hard not to notice how well-trod their dynamic feels. Porcupine has an unusual hook in the adult adoption angle, but after introducing it as a way to bring Otto and Audrey together, the film reverts to emotional beats familiar from any other story of prickly adults warming to one another. There’s little sense of what specific challenges, disappointments or benefits might come with adult adoption, as opposed to child adoption, or in contrast to other close bonds that adults might form through less official means. Audrey and Otto’s emotional reticence can become a liability for the movie when it’s difficult to suss out just how serious either of them is about the idea of formalizing their ersatz parent-child relationship.
But if Porcupine doesn’t cut as deeply as it could, it’s still an intriguing window into the lives of two characters who, thanks to Cahill’s precision, feel almost not like characters at all. His film envisions Audrey as a wanderer who rarely spends more than a few months in one town — just enough time to get a sense of the local rhythms before moving on to sample a bit of some other life in some other place — and his movie ends up feeling like one of her stopovers. It may not feel as substantial as a new forever home. But it feels like a place that exists all on its own.