DIRECTED BY: Richard Bates Jr.
FEATURING: AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, Roger Bart, Ariel Winter, Jeremy Sumpter
PLOT: Bored at school, frustrated by her home life, and tormented by nightmares that transform her dreams of becoming a surgeon into bloody tableaux, 18-year-old Pauline tries to solve her issues by herself, with unexpected consequences.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Excision is a character study focusing on one very screwed-up young woman, but the film delicately walks the line between making her behavior fancifully quirky and disturbingly repellent. The distinctive point-of-view, excellent acting by the two leads, and an ending that earns its dropped jaws all make this one to remember.
COMMENTS: By now, the sullen teen girl with no f’s to give has become a trope unto itself. From Daria to Wednesday Addams to nearly every character ever played by Aubrey Plaza, the type combines a steadfast commitment to outsider status with just the hint of potential homicidal intent. There are a lot of reasons to think that Excision‘s Pauline walks down this same familiar road. She’s fearless when it comes to getting in the faces of those she deems inferior. She’s devoid of shame in asking for what she wants, such as when she walks up to a boy and tells him point-blank that she wants to lose her virginity to him. And she’s dripping with snark for nearly everyone. In that respect, it’s easy to want to be on her side, to wish that everyone would just let her be herself.
But then there are the dreams, which feature naked corpses, autopsies, extractions, and no shortage of blood. On their own, they’re baroque, but their influence starts to spill over into the waking world, such as when Pauline takes it upon herself to pierce her own nose, ask a teacher if she can get an STD from copulating with the dead, or perform her own exploratory surgery on a wounded bird. As much as you want to root for the underdog, it’s not hard to see why everyone else in the film is put off by her attitude. She’s definitely creepy.
McCord devours her leading role. With unkempt eyebrows and lingering acne, she’s the girl you expect to be transformed into a beautiful swan in the second act, but she can’t help but be herself. And that self is someone who clearly desires love and appreciation, as much as she bats away the suggestions of everyone who thinks they know who she should be. As good as McCord is, the performance from Traci Lords as her mother is downright spectacular. Despite the potential for her repressed and moralistic character to become simplistic and even parodistic (and in spite of the implied irony in her casting), she is genuinely excellent. Through their committed and entertaining performances, McCord and Lords elevate the mother-daughter relationship away from the starkly drawn lines of Carrie and to something akin to the complexities of Lady Bird.
Writer/director Bates, who expanded his original short film to feature length, has one other card to play, and it’s as interesting as it is irrelevant. He offers up a bevy of cameos, several of which are immediately appealing to a weird sensibility. Moving beyond Marlee Matlin and Matthew Gray Gubler, Excision welcomes such luminaries as Ray Wise as a rather intense principal, Malcolm McDowell as a seen-it-all math teacher, and, most pointedly, John Waters as a plain-minded pastor called upon to double as an amateur therapist. Perhaps what’s most odd about this casting is how utterly normal every one of these cult legends seems. The effect is similar to ’s decision to populate The Informant! with comedians playing it totally straight. If these are the weirdos, we ask ourselves, then what the hell is Pauline?
Excision is a demented character study right up until the very end, when Pauline’s psychic trauma manifests in the real world. It works as a shocking piece of horror, but also makes sense as a logical endpoint for Pauline’s efforts to balance her dangerous impulses with her eagerness to please. They’re not compatible, and the only reasonable result is catastrophe. Many films show you the monster; few go to this effort to show you how it got that way.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by Tori, who called it “amazing” and said “you can’t imagine where the plot goes.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)