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American Mary
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by Jay Seaver

"A heck of a way to get an education."
4 stars

SCREENED AT SHUDDERFEST 2012: I'm not sure what its Canadian filmmakers figure is so specifically American about "American Mary", but, hey, what's in a name and all that. Jen & Sylvia Soska have made an impressive little movie that may not exactly be horror but can certainly make even a jaded audience squirm.

Maybe crippling student loans are uniquely American; certainly, the high cost of education is what's staring medical school student Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) in the face. With every bill imaginable about to come due, she's ready to take a job stripping to make ends meet. Good thing she had med school on her résumé, though - an employee of club owner Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) has a sudden need to be stitched up during her audition. This leads her to dancer Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk) and the body-modification community, who are much more welcoming than her instructor (David Lovgren).

The Soskas don't quite turn exploitation film on its head with American Mary, and that often makes what they do manage that much more effective. There's a "gruesome revenge story" thread that maybe shouldn't be called conventional but will still be somewhat familiar for horror fans, serving up a fair quota of blood and guts while the strip club delivers the requisite skin. The body-modification stuff will likely gross out the more straight-laced audience members, though I suspect that community will appreciate the filmmakers not treating it like a freakshow (though characters may). It's got solid enough horror credentials that the sexy young star not actually working as a stripper might fly under the radar.

That bit is kind of important, though - without making direct comments on it, American Mary is very much about sexuality, exploitation, and a person's general right to ownership of her (or his) own body: A neckline that goes to the navel is not an invitation to rape, that guy has metal in his face because he likes it and not necessarily to make you uncomfortable, and what seems like mere mutilation can mean something important to the practitioner. That basic concept permeates nearly every scene, often in interesting ways - as much as Mary is willing to take Beatress's business, she seems to disapprove of the nature of her modifications enough to shy away from being friends; Billy's interest in a particular video is downright creepy - without the movie ever coming close to being a lecture.

It might, admittedly, be nice if the actual text was as smooth as the subtext. The plot is a little wonky on both ends, with the finale close to coming from nowhere and the opening very much avoiding the likelihood that Beatress and company must already know people who can do these surgeries that have graduated from medical school. Some of the dialogue is very flat and awkward, although in retrospect I think some was by design. Sure, Dr. Grant's way of speaking to Mary seemed off to me, but I've never been a young woman whose older male authority figures find a reason to use the word "fuck" in every sentence. I'm guessing it's just that uncomfortable, though not in a "bad dialogue" sense.

Even with that in mind, Lovgren still seems like the weakest link in a generally capable cast. Katharine Isabelle, at the very least, will get noticed for this; she's striking in appearance and while she's mostly called upon to play tightly contained anger, she manages to find several different shades of harshness for it. She handles everything else well, too, but one understands when Billy tells Mary that she scares people. Antonio Cupo gets that character right, too, selling Billy becoming smitten with Mary in his way while never losing the layer of slime he has when they meet. Tristan Risk and Paula Lindberg do well enough building personalities despite having to work through a lot of makeup.

At least, I hope it's makeup. Like some of the dialog, the way Beatress and "Ruby Realgirl" look sits on the edge between "doesn't seem real" and "seems like something that disturbs because it looks unreal". I'll lead toward the latter, because much of the movie seems well-done, especially for a low-budget indie: The blood-and-guts stuff is solid and the sets seldom look spartan or underpopulated. The Soskas and cinematographer Brian Pearson know how to use the camera and the pacing isn't bad, either. They know how to get the most out of their assets and handle their limitations as well as more seasoned filmmakers.

"American Mary" is pretty good, but not for everyone; some will want to look away and there's a nasty streak among fandom that may exaggerate the movie's flaws because they consciously or unconsciously don't like what it's saying. But it's at least saying something interesting, which is more than can be said for many movies of its type.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=24337&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/31/12 14:26:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2012 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2012 series, click here.

User Comments

1/26/13 Man Out Six Bucks Subplots needed fleshing out, but interesting glimpse into horrors of the psyche 4 stars
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USA
  31-May-2013 (R)
  DVD: 18-Jun-2013

UK
  N/A

Australia
  31-May-2013
  DVD: 18-Jun-2013




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