Excision (2012)

First published by Little White Lies

“I know I can be a bit of a demented bitch sometimes, but you still love me, right?” So 18-year-old Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) asks her mother Phyllis (Traci Lords), her words echoing through Excision like a desperate cry for help.

Insensitive, manipulative, delusional and increasingly dangerous, wannabe sawbones Pauline is certainly hard to love, but at the same time her intense need to gain her mother’s admiration and affection is also, ultimately, what allows viewers to maintain sympathy with her through an escalating series of horrors. That and McCord’s exceptionally nuanced performance, going from arrogant to vulnerable to ecstatic to downright disturbed, often in the space of a few seconds.

“I don’t know of a teenager who doesn’t profile as a sociopath,” Pauline says, casually excusing her more aberrant behaviour. Yet while the adults around her regard this gawky, greasy-haired high schooler as being like the teen misfit from Welcome to the Dollhouse, she is revealed both by her disturbing dreams of sexuality and surgery (to which we alone are privy) and by her furtive extra-curricular activities, to be far closer to the unhinged anti-heroine of Lucky McKee’s 2002 film, May.

Phyllis is something of a ‘demented bitch’ herself, a monstrous suburban harridan obsessed with church and cotillion, overtly favouring her younger, ailing daughter Grace (Ariel Winter) over Pauline. The potentially destructive nature of the mother-daughter bond certainly forms a key theme in Richard Bates Jr’s feature debut, expanded from his award-winning 2008 short of the same name.

Yet Phyllis is played by one-time teen porn star Traci Lords, and the film’s other adult authorities – Pauline’s priest, maths teacher and headmaster – are played respectively by ‘pope of trash’ John Waters, A Clockwork Orange badboy Malcolm McDowell and Lynchian dad-from-hell Ray Wise. Bates’ clever casting shows that even the most wayward wild child can eventually grow up and become integrated into the society against which he/she once rebelled. It’s a ray of hope in a film whose trajectory is otherwise defiantly bleak.

Anticipation: Good festival buzz.

Enjoyment: A strikingly shot, brilliantly acted adolescent rite of passage from darkly funny to just plain dark.

In retrospect: This disturbing, demented psychodrama cuts to the heart of teen growing pains.

Anton Bitel