Directed & Written by Carlota Pereda
Starring Laura Galán, Claudia Salas, Carmen Machi, Pilar Castro, Camille Aguilar, Mabel del Pozo, Richard Holmes, & José Pastor.
Drama / Horror / Thriller
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains significant spoilers.
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
Bullying is a difficult topic to tackle in fiction because it usually either gets too graphic and becomes pure exploitation, or it falls into the cliched traps of after-school specials on television. Every once in a while, a film like Carlota Pereda’s Piggy comes along and manages to create something unique, disturbing, and powerful. One of the worst parts about bullying, whether it happens to kids, teens, or adults, is that all too often the systems in society meant to protect people completely fail, which leaves people exposed to various traumas. Even worse than that is, occasionally someone being bullied stands up for themselves but they do something extreme, and that’s never pretty. What the kids at Columbine did was inexcusable and disgusting, yet we do have to reckon with the fact that they were left vulnerable to all sorts of psychological and physical abuse prior to the shootings. Similarly, the murder of Bobby Kent was awful, it should never have happened, but it’s impossible to talk about his story without discussing the violence he committed against others.
At least in Western society, we find it tough to talk about these issues where not everything is cut and dry morally, especially when it comes to talking about victimhood, doubly so when it involves physical violence. Pereda’s Piggy sits in that uncomfortable space, deftly navigating complex issues surrounding bullying. Her film tells the story of a fat teen, Sara (Laura Galán), being bullied by her peers. One day when Sara’s forced to walk home humiliated in her bathing suit from the pool, she comes upon a psychopath kidnapping her bullies. The man lets Sara go and gives her a towel to cover up. Later, when the whole town starts searching for the missing young people, Sara doesn’t tell anybody what she saw.
Then, things get much more complicated, and, soon, very violent.
As an elder millennial, I was nearly in high school when personal computers became popular and more affordable, and I was almost out of high school before online bullying became an unfortunately large part of the social landscape for teenagers. Piggy briefly, but powerfully, shows how bullying’s reach through the internet has increased the effects of bullying, making it that much more devastating for those being bullied; bullies can literally broadcast their target’s pain to a global society via social media nowadays. Whereas once upon a time, bullying was confined to the schoolyard or social circles around a school, for the past 20+ years bullying has had a worldwide reach. Pereda showcases the expanding effects of bullying online through the “Three Little Pigs” hashtag used by one of Sara’s bullies in an Instagram photo of Sara alongside her mother and father at the butcher shop owned by her family. The butcher shop and the bullying combined also say something deeply negative about contemporary society and how people relate to each other.
The butcher shop—compounded by the “Piggy” and “Three Little Pigs” insults against Sara and her family—is quite significant in a slasher film about a teen bullied for her physical appearance/weight. We see the cuts of meat on display, just like people are put on display like objects in society, and it’s the capitalist mindset applied to flesh and blood: Sara’s behind the counter when a couple young women from the group who bully her come in, and she may as well be one of the cuts of meat under the glass the way she’s treated, as her photograph is plastered online and her appearance is objectified with abusive language. This hammers us over the head with how people transform into bullies by coming to view other people as objects, like any other commodity, another byproduct of living in this contemporary, capitalist Western society.
Piggy uses the Civil Guard, Sara’s shitty mom, and the awful little town where Sara lives to portray the unfortunate ways in which society’s institutions, from the cops to the family to the local community, most times do not protect individuals being bullied and abused, leaving them on their own and susceptible to all manners of danger, as well as, and especially, violence. The Civil Guard is directly paralleled with Sara’s verbally abusive mother when we see the Guard’s motto emblazoned over one of their buildings: “Everything for the Motherland.” Later on, Sara’s mom bullies her at the dinner table when she sits down to eat a full plate: “Don‘t they call you fat? Eat less then.” Her mother also bullies her father with a bit of good old fashioned toxic masculinity at one point, telling him to “grow a pair.” Apart from letting people down, The Civil Guard—a militarised national police force with no shortage of brutality complaints—and Sara’s mom are each bullies in their own right, just like the entire town itself, which we witness after suspicion falls on Sara concerning the missing teens and the townsfolk immediately launch into attacking her verbally. Sara’s bullied by almost everyone around her and that leaves her open to potentially terrible things, some far worse than the bullying.
One of the subversive qualities about Piggy is that a serial killer is the only one who shows care and compassion for Sara. He doesn’t care about her weight, even bringing her some of the treats she likes, and he takes care of Sara’s family permanently after she screams at her mother: “I wish you were all dead.” The killer’s affection for Sara here is a statement about the dark places vulnerable people end up when their cries for help are neglected. When the bullied are failed by all the societal institutions and people around them that are supposed to protect them, they’re left in a vulnerable position open to manipulation by other people—or, like Sara, they’re left at the mercy of a vengeful anger they’ve built up against their bullies.
In the end, Piggy holds onto a ray of positivity shining through all the dark, bloody tragedy when Sara refuses to become like her bullies or like the killer, in spite of the fact she weeps over having to murder the murderer, the only person who protected her. Sara has not been irreparably warped by the bullying heaped onto her, choosing the moral way forward after going through a brutal, turbulent trial of morality throughout the better part of the film. In spite of the pain her bullies caused her, she doesn’t let that pain transform her into a spiteful, violent person.
There’s so much happening in Piggy that people will be able to read into many different scenes in different ways. This essay doesn’t touch on everything, such as the masturbation scene where Sara covers up so as not to be looked upon by Jesus hanging on her wall, an intriguing moment of sex v. religion, particularly considering it’s a Spanish film. Pereda offers up a number of elements to latch onto in this disturbing story about the faults and failures of society when it comes to protecting vulnerable people from all sorts of abuses.
Although the finale of Piggy may be, to some extent, an ambiguous one because of the way Sara reacts to killing the killer, the way Sara chooses not to allow her pain to define her morality is undeniably hopeful, and her actions make a profound statement about the effects of abuse. We know nothing personal about the film’s killer, but serial killers often use childhood abuse as a scapegoat for their hideous acts of violence and murder against others. Though we’re meant to see how Sara’s bullying drives her to a bad, dark place, Sara’s final choice in the film pushes back against the narrative that the abused are automatically destined to become abusers in their own right. In a film about the many ways people do bad things to one another, the story closes on the ever-present potential in people to do good things, no matter what’s happened to them.