Cuddly Toys Review: Dark Comedy Laces a Disturbing Docufiction Movie

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Kansas Bowling’s Cuddly Toys takes an offbeat, surreal, and often disturbing look at the secret lives of teenage girls that coats its subject matter with a little sugar and a lot of salt.

Presented by Bowling herself (that’s Professor Kansas Bowling to you), this documentary-style movie blends fictional vignettes with supposedly real interviews.

I say supposedly because Bowling’s purposefully goofy undertone in her presentation does disarm the potential reality of the documentary’s subjects and their traumatic lives. It’s a fascinating presentation style because it almost seems like it’s mocking the idea of a straight-up documentary on what can befall young girls who come across the wrong influences at an impressionable time in their lives. And to that end, it makes sense.

Why bother coldly presenting the many real horrible things that can happen to young women and girls when the way communication is now seen is drowned in a sea of other miserable ”facts of life”? Giving Cuddly Toys a disarmingly awkward tone at certain times only drives home the horrifying nature of everything else happening in it. So, while it is a bit strange to see Professor Bowling dole out factoids (which aren’t all serious either) to parents about the secret lives of their teenage girls while looking like a bad comedy sketch idea of a professor, it plays its part as a dark humor vein running through a series of grim recollections and dramatizations.

The girls at the center of this docu-fiction echo the tone to some degree. There are several accounts of their experiences with men at a young age that naturally, end in some vile way, and because Cuddly Toys plays with the boundaries of fiction in its presentation, the words alone are not enough to invoke the desired response, especially as there’s little to no grim-faced despair when these things are being discussed. No, that comes when we later get reenactments featuring those same girls. While not graphic, Cuddly Toys’ scenes of rape, sexual abuse, and murder are stark and upsetting, and performed by a variety of men and boys.

The almost obnoxiously stereotypical van full of perverts, the disturbingly nonchalant popular teen boy at a picnic, or the manipulative older man preying on a young girl who sought out adventure away from home. They all feel like pastiches of ”bad men” when first presented, but the point is, they are bad men that existed in these women’s lives. Much like the heightened, sometimes silly wrapping on Cuddly Toys, presenting these men as almost cartoonish in everything, but the act itself is a necessary jolt.

Another strong selling point in this jarring disparity is that Cuddly Toys is filmed on 16mm, evoking the look of old-school education programming. Bowling starts in an almost cutesy affectaion of that, but layers in more and more content clearly not meant to be there. Instead of a glib, broad fluff piece on girlhood meant for schools, it’s an off-kilter mutant that spills the real information needed.

And therein is the point of Cuddly Toys. It’s a dark and playful spin on softball guidance for kids reaching an important stage of their lives. It’s not screeching bleak, cold truth at its intended viewers or dryly reciting statistics but serving it to them it in an oddball manner that draws as much from the era of YouTube & TikTok as it does from that less-than-golden era.

Make no mistake, Cuddly Toys may have entertainment honey drizzled over its statements, but it’s not enough to mask the sourness underneath. It’s far from a palatable watch, and the seemingly flippant tone will undoubtedly, and perhaps understandably, rub some people the wrong way. What Bowling has made here is a strange and unique document of everyday horrors.

Score: 8/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 8 equates to ”Great.” While there are a few minor issues, this score means that the art succeeds at its goal and leaves a memorable impact.

Cuddly Toys is screening as part of the Unnamed Footage Festival.


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