Though it can be jarring to think of it, we truly live in a youth-centered culture. Even though there are statistically more adults than children around, we are still culturally focused on what goes on before you become an adult. So many films, and television shows are about high school, and the ins and outs of that peculiar time in your life. I often wonder if we go back to that time because it is such a unique and artificial construct. When else do you spend most of your days with people who have grown up in the same town as you? For the rest of your life you will be hard-pressed to find a group of people that have had a similar collective experience. And it is in this collective experience that differences between people really stand out. Excisionis a brilliant film that examines one girl who forcefully stands out.
Pauline (in a phenomenally unsettling performance by Annalynne McCord) is one odd kid, both at her school and at home. She is delusional, convinced that she will grow up to be a surgeon, though she does not actually seem that interested in getting a jump on her academics to fulfill that dream. She is physically awkward, with dirty hair, acne, and a lanky body. Pauline is sarcastic, verbally aggressive, and indifferent to her fellow classmates. Not only does she not fit in at school, she also does not fit in at home. Her father seems to have a genuine affection for her, but neither he nor her mother knows how to relate to her. They are religious, and concerned with their appearances, and preoccupied with their other daughter Grace’s health. Grace is very sick with Cystic Fibrosis. Though this impacts their lives day-to-day, the whole family, including Pauline, seems suspended in a state of denial about how sick Grace really is. By not processing this grief as a family, the wedge between Pauline and the rest of them grows wider and wider. Add in Pauline’s developing sexuality, and the fact that she is a burgeoning sociopath, and the film blossoms into a vivid character study.
As a formerly awkward teenager I tried desperately to relate to Pauline. This is where director Richard Bates Jr.’s extraordinary directing comes in to play. He presents Pauline, at first, as an ostracized kid, who just can’t get along with any one. But (and here is where the horror comes in) Pauline is actually so much more than that. Littered throughout the film are Pauline’s super sexual, violent, delusional, often surgically themed dreams. Pauline appears to be a female Napoleon Dynamite in the making, but with our views into her psyche we see that she is far more pathological than the typical sympathetic teen. I found myself reacting to her emotionally, at first with empathy, and then frantically backing away from her, so as to distance myself from this monster, only to find myself again feeling sorry for her yet again. The fact is that Pauline’s classmates are jerks, but not nearly as bad as the classmates in Carrie. And
Pauline’s family life is a little off, and she is forced to go to counseling she does not want, but her parents are not abusive or mean. It is this balance of Pauline’s life being frustrating for her, but not terrible, that makes this seesaw of emotions fluid. Bates knows exactly what he is doing by pacing the film as he did. The audience is constantly flipping their view on Pauline, while working towards a gut-wrenching, sad and yet disturbing climax. It is rare to have a director exert so much control over his audience’s emotions scene-to-scene. The fact that this is Bates’ first feature film makes that all the more impressive.
Another impressive feature of Excision is the cast. I am so accustomed to well-cast horror films being a parade of “where are they now?” former stars. And while that is always delightful, I was completely blown away by the super star cast of Excision. Traci Lords plays Pauline’s overly religious, but still sympathetic mother. John Waters is Pauline’s reverend and ad hoc therapist. Malcolm McDowell, Marlee Matlin, Ray Wise, and Roger Bart all round out the astounding cast.
While this film does turn to horror in a terrifying, though not alienating, way, it would be a pity to spoil anyone’s first experience with the film, so I will say no more. I was fortunate to catch a screening at this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival, and there Bates assured us that the film will be distributed within the year. I will certainly catch this film when it gets a wider release, and I am really looking forward to a closer read of the brilliance of Bates’ film.
(Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston with her husband and two black cats. She wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero and works too much.)