Emerging from a multi-award-winning short from 2008, writer and director Richard Bates Jr.’s debut feature length film Excision is a work of brilliance. Ostensibly, the film is a high school comedy/drama which follows the story of eighteen-year old Pauline, played exquisitely by AnnaLynne McCord. Pauline is a bright, ambitious and sexually curious young woman who harbours dreams of becoming a surgeon that are incompatible with pleasing her bible-bashing mother. Pauline is, in many ways, the quintessential teenager. In other ways, it is to be sincerely hoped that she is not.
When Pauline asks expectantly in the opening minutes of the film, ‘Can you catch an STD from a dead person?’, the dark but hilarious tone of Excision is firmly established. This tone is continued in a later scene when Pauline, walking along the street, gasps with joy and bends down out of shot, then reappears with a dead pigeon, which she later dissects, pretending that it is her patient. This incident is just one of the many that showcase the protagonist’s increasingly disturbing fascination with blood, unhygienic sexual encounters and all things macabre. Yet these real-life moments are nothing in comparison to Pauline’s dreams.
The dream sequences are relentless in their increasing sadism and eccentric darkness: filming them must have taken the film-makers several trips to the fake-blood shop. Despite the dominance of bright primary colours, discordant music and unsettling images of these dream sequences, there is something strangely quiet and appealing about them. They add an abstract artistic side to a beautiful film about the understated social meltdown of a brilliant teenage mind. Each sequence reflects the narrative’s building momentum, as Pauline finds herself enabled by the loss of her virginity, and as her desires to become a surgeon and impress her mother intensify.
As the story and the dream sequences continue, the audience is left wishing that the parents would take Pauline’s requests for professional psychiatric help seriously; it becomes clear that the film is headed towards an inevitably dark – and most likely gruesome – climax. Marking Pauline’s descent into her own surgical dream-world are intermittent scenes of her praying for various things such as her mother’s approval, her sister’s health, and her own success. Pauline has an obvious contempt for religion, as shown by her stance towards her religious mother and the local church’s therapist (played magnificently by John Waters), and by her own, firm statement that “religion and science don’t mix”. Yet, her character shines most brightly during these scenes of prayer, which provide moments of relative clarity.
Pauline feigns hatred and apathy towards her mother, but it is abundantly clear that she also craves her attention and approval. The personality clashes between mother and daughter are perhaps the most compelling parts of the film. Although they love each other, neither can understand the ways that they show this love. Phyllis’s love emerges through her attempts to improve Pauline’s manners and help her integrate socially, while Pauline’s love for her mother expresses itself in her ambitions to become a surgeon. This dynamic makes both the characters, though superficially annoying and obnoxious, also thoroughly sympathetic.
Although McCord’s performance is impressive, those of the supporting cast provide the real joy of Excision. Traci Lords’s perpetual pout, for instance, is key to her role as Pauline’s Bible-clutching mother. Ariel Winter, of Modern Family fame, also stands out as Pauline’s precocious eye-rolling younger sister, at once the family’s golden child and a Cystic Fibrosis sufferer. These characters’ reactions to Pauline are particularly enjoyable in the family-dinner-table scenes, which avoid the usual clichés of movies about misunderstood teens. The subtle glances of her father, played by Roger Bart (whose facial expressions are wonderful), and John Waters’s perplexed yet impenetrable gaze add further substance. This array of supporting characters all serve to emphasise Pauline’s isolation in her own world of blood, dissection and sex.
Excision is at once beautiful and disgusting, disruptive and serene, hilarious and tragic. It is a film that will garner mixed reviews. For this reviewer, however, it is nothing short of marvellous.