Screening soon in Brooklyn: mondo doc ‘Cuddly Toys’

26-year-old auteur Kansas Bowling focuses 16mm sensibility on teen girl vulnerability

April 21, 2023 Janna Shaftan
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More than 100 actresses play in Kansas Bowling’s ‘mondo’ documentary “Cuddly Toys.”

‘Statistically, two of them will be dead before 30,’ reads the poster. Who will it be?

“I just made that statistic up,” Bowling laughs.

It’s par for the course for a mondo doc. The genre had its brief moment in the late 60’s after the arrival of its namesake film Mondo Cane (A Dog’s World — a kind of Italian expletive). It’s a type of shockumentary, blending real testimony convincingly with the fictional. I learn all this from Bowling, whose encyclopedic knowledge of B films stems from having been gifted a Super 8 camera when she was 13. Two years later, she began directing her first film, “B.C. Butcher,” the first prehistoric slasher film in… um, history. It was filmed in her dad’s backyard and had characters named Dina, Neandra and Rex (played by Kato Kaelin, whose source of greater fame came when he was a witness for the prosecution in the O.J. Simpson case).

A few years later, it was released by Troma Entertainment and earned Bowling the first spot in their Institute for Gifted Youth, a newly fledged program supporting talented teenage filmmakers. “They gave me a certificate and everything!” she jokes. In the interlude before her next film, Bowling starred in Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” along with her sister Parker Love.

Bowling’s second film is a coming of age in more ways than one. “Cuddly Toys” is a saccharine nightmare; a montage of tropes of the worst fears of parents. There is a lurid eyelash-batting innocence juxtaposed with an inhospitable stigma-laden society. But inhospitable is the best case here as Bowling unflinchingly profiles the visceral realities women face.

In the film, Bowling is ‘Professor Bowling,’ our didactic narrator taking us through case studies impassively with lab coat and pointer. “I’m a graduate of the University of Teenage Studies,” she orates. “Earning my PhD in the field of the young girl.”

Professor Bowling is the film’s narrator. Photo: “Cuddly Toys” (2021).

We meet an anorexic girl whose eyes are too sensitive to look at daylight. We meet a girl marked up with potential improvements from head to toe by an eager plastic surgeon. We meet a preteen beauty pageant contestant. “That frown doesn’t do your face justice,” a male judge coos. But in a signature sharp transition, he follows it with, “But that smile needs work! Could you maybe seem more dissociative?”

Parker Love Bowling gets marked up at a plastic surgery consult. Photo: “Cuddly Toys” (2021).

“To some, this would be disturbing.” Bowling says, reflecting on this internalized gaze. “To most, it’s a common ritual. A rite of passage.”

We meet a girl in an abusive relationship. “Do you really love me?” she asks her partner adoringly, but before we hear the answer, a sitcom laugh track plays and we cut to the next scene. At the funeral of a murdered girl, the eulogy, “Thank God she died young and beautiful,” is repeated over and over, an eerie and revealing phrasing. Girls who want to escape cloistered and mundane worlds of suburbia find themselves in dark cities in darker crowds. Drugs, rape and murder are omnipresent.

“Parents should monitor their daughters for spiritual decay,” a lecturer drones. Later on, in a moment of reflection, Bowling breaks her assured character and in a tentative theorem-posturing voice declares, “The problem is the lives they’re forced to lead.”

Something here recalls Lauren Berlant, a cultural theorist who coined the concept of “cruel optimism.” It’s the practice of attaching ourselves to an institutionalized fantasy of the good life. This is the ‘American Dream,’ the things we don’t question wanting, even when the attachments are obstacles to deeper fulfillment. Berlant writes that all attachments are inherently optimistic, but our pursuit of a conventionally-accepted vision of a successful life, as well as to be publicly seen as having attained it, causes us to project fantasies on objects and relations. This often blinds us to the actual situation. There is a point here that our desires, the patterns of our desire, are reinforced by society and its social norms. With maturity, we all build variable degrees of discernment, but the teenage years are fraught and impressionable, as a fragile sense of identity and reward system are under siege by a storm of mixed messages.

Not everyone in the film is vulnerable. Several girls are proud manipulators themselves. Yet there is something in the camera work, the way it lingers a little too long to reveal glances to the side, movements of the eyes, a nervous tic or tut. The internal monologue suggests dissonance, a narrative fray.

“Cuddly Toys” was produced by Manhattan Movie Studio, a micro movie studio in New York launched in 2021 by Joe Gallagher and Zack Weiner. “We hope to screen it on a yearly basis and organize discussion panels,” said Gallagher. Gazing off-screen on our Zoom call, he admitted, “I find parts hard to watch, but I think it’s important to be able to speak what we feel are truths.”

Zack Weiner, Kansas Bowling, and Joe Gallagher. Photo: Matt Weinberger.

Later on, I asked Bowling about her intentions with some of the lengthier scenes of violence.

“I don’t really think about people’s reactions,” she said. “I’m not trying to make people uncomfortable. I just try to be honest. I tell a story the only way I know how to tell it.”

In her own teenage years, she witnessed girls around her go through much of what is depicted in the film. About her own experience, she says, “I was never invited to cool parties. Instead, I tried to watch every American International Pictures release ever.” At the end of high school, she says, she felt that the best way to break into film would be to make one.

I asked Bowling, what’s next for her? The answer: she’s already shooting her next project, a true crime documentary in British Columbia. 

At a launch party for the film at Manero’s in Little Italy, Bowling thrust a small book into my hands. It was “A Cuddly Toys Companion,” a journal she had written during the five-year journey of making the movie.

She describes raising money for the film through a series of chance encounters and a car accident settlement. She’s a film purist and shoots 16mm on an Aaton LTR, an expensive process, especially the telecine component of transferring film to digital for editing. She declares, “I believe shooting film is the only way for a movie to have integrity!”

“A Cuddly Toys Companion” outlines the making of the film. Photo: Far West Press.

She writes, “People ask me how I make money: I don’t know how to answer besides stating the fact that I’m a natural born hustler through and through and I’ve somehow been able to get by.” The book, her journal “A Cuddly Toys Companion,” is a trip that discusses so many elements of her work: working with lots of eccentrics, wrangling a sheep for a scene (then being unable to part with said sheep), runaway lizards, an almost-cameo from Little Richard and more. I read it in one sitting.

It closes with a final thought for her readers: “I hope you are able to reinvent yourself at a whim, because there are so many lives to be lived within your own, and the world is so much larger than the problems we create for ourselves.”

“Cuddly Toys” can be seen in the following venues:

  • Lincoln Center Monday 4/24
  • Film Noir Cinema Friday 4/28
  • Film Noir Cinema Saturday 4/29

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