DIRECTOR Richard Bates Jr. WRITER Richard Bates Jr. STARS AnnaLynne McCord; Roger Bart; Ariel Winter DVD & BLU-RAY 12 November
Quite the impressive debut from director and writer Richard Bates Jr, Excision is a slow-burner — perhaps too slow for some — that has hidden depths. Masquerading as teen horror comedy, which, to be fair it is, the real story here is the degenerative mental condition of the lead character, followed by comment on social pressures and bullying.
That lead character is the teenage Pauline. Unlike her peers, she is unconcerned with appearance (presented here as grotesque, if we are to be slave to stereotype, and for this purpose, it is required) and her somewhat blunt personality does nothing to ingratiate her, causing dismay in every significant adult in her life. As such, she is a disgusted outcast at school, nevertheless Pauline is entirely comfortable with this alienation; in fact she embraces it in her defiance. Holding frank conversations with God, the young woman cares only for and is obsessed with surgery, picking up roadkill to practice upon when she is not living in a sexualised dream world that sees her at its centre. It’s a fantasy that extends to her younger sister, a cystic fibrosis sufferer, and ultimately leads to tragedy.
As a slow-burner, the performances here are what really drive Excision, and AnnaLynne McCord as Pauline is excellent. There are points at which it would be tempting to inject some hamminess, however McCord plays it with subtlety, the physical awkwardness of her character feeling very natural, while her blunt dialogue is drawled out with a casualness that never lets us forget that Pauline cares very little. Complementing her is Traci Lords giving a star turn as Phyliss, her Bible-bashing mother, whose dismay with her daughter grows into hatred as she refuses to fit in.
While the focus is very much on Pauline, the film told entirely from her perspective, it is cleverly punctuated by dinner-table scenes, injecting an important additional strand that comments on family relationships and vulnerability to social pressure. It is during these that we witness Phyliss’ growing exasperations and the impact on the family as a whole; had these not been present, a different format in storytelling would have been required, thus robbing Excision of some of its delightful quirkiness. A smart move was to also keep the cameos’ — Ray Wise; Malcolm McDowell; John Waters — screen time to a minimum, so as to not rob attention from Pauline and the impact of rare, moving moments in which she shows emotion. In fact there is little to fault here, other than some self-indulgence during Pauline’s dream sequences, however these may be justified in presenting her lack of relationship with reality.
The climax is not a surprise but is no less devastating for it, as Pauline crosses the threshold in that reality, and also her own mental state. At times the story may not have felt that it was developing, but again, Bates made a good calculation here; the impact of the final moments are moving indeed. Yes, Excision is an impressive feature debut.