Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/11/12 12:06:19

"Would make a great short film (and probably did)."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

SCREENED AT THE 2012 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: Richard Bates Jr.'s "Excision" is a feature version of his short film, and it's sort of got that feel: More observation than story, strong visuals that exist for their own sake, and one central character that dominates an ensemble. It's occasionally as unsettling as it wants to be, but the slow burn may not be as effective as the concentrated jolt.

Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) is a high-school student who wants to be a doctor when she grows up. She's not short of motivation - her younger sister Grace (Ariel Winter) has cystic fibrosis, and they're close despite Grace being much more popular, pretty, and well-adjusted - but she's less the buckling-down-and-studying type than the medically-themed-erotic-dreams sort. She's an outsider at school and clashes with her mother (Traci Lords) at home, and counseling sessions with their priest (John Waters) only lead to more hostility. Everyone is certain there's something off about her, but nobody realizes the full extent.

Bates's intention here, perhaps, is to do a slow burn, but where something burning is changing state and composition, Excision spends most of its time smoldering - storing energy and ready to change state with the proper stimulus. The latter is ominous, to be sure, but often less interesting to watch. Pauline is creepy when the movie starts, creepy when it's about to hit its climax, and really doesn't change enough even in degree to make the movie feel like it's moving in some direction or other. There's not even really a progression to her acting out; rank the other things she does how you wish, but skipping school to go to the library seems like it should be toward the beginning of the movie, rather than the end For another example, it feels like there are a half-dozen family dinners in the movie, and they don't feel that different; it's the same attitude from the same people at roughly the same intensity.

The stunt casting doesn't help much, either. It's not so much the times when one wonders what Malcolm McDowell and Marlee Matlin are doing in such minor roles - if they had a few days to give to a script they liked, that's cool - but the stuff where people are being cast against type to no clear benefit. What does having John Waters as a well-meaning priest get you, other than expectations for subversion that never come? Ray Wise in full oily smirk as the principal works better, because it can read as clueless as opposed to just untrustworthy, and while having Traci Lords as the strict, Bible-thumping mother is actually a good idea in theory (it lets the audience imagine an interesting history to get her to this point that the movie only hints at), her performance isn't in the same league as her novelty value.

AnnaLynne McCord's is a bit better, though. She does occasionally fall into the no-man's-land between genuinely strange and trying to come across as off-putting, although she can be pretty good at times, especially when she's showing Pauline's emotions on her face more than in her words. She's got particularly good chemistry with Ariel Winter; it's quite enjoyable to see the pair of them protective of each other in their own ways. Roger Bart is dryly amusing as the girls' father, a contrast in both characterization and acting style to Lords who manages to make everyone in a scene with him better.

Or maybe Bates just gets more out of a more seasoned actor. He and the film have their strengths; Pauline is an original, intriguing creation, who manages to make sense in her world even if she doesn't fit in there. Her fantasies/dreams are striking, and the ending is certainly memorable. Unfortunately, getting there means a lot of slogging through cotillion and family dinners and never quite knowing whether Pauline is supposed to be completely delusional or in need of some guidance.

I can't recall whether I saw the original "Excision" when it played BUFF a few years ago; I suspect it was pretty good. As a feature, though, there's just not enough happening. A feature should do more than a short; this one feels like it does the same amount over a longer period of time.

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