At first it felt like a strange dark comedy pulled from inspirations from John Waters and Todd Solondz. And then it starts to feel a bit like an "alienated teen" psychological thriller not unlike a rough, indie version of Carrie. And then something clicked in my brain: something about the premise, the tone, and the admirable grossness of Richard Bates' Excision felt oddly familiar to me. Aha! This flick, like many an indie production that plays Sundance, is an expansion on a short film -- more specifically: a shocking 18-minute short that ran through the festival circuit back in 2008. I'd pretty much forgotten about that short until I was halfway through the full-length version of Excision, and then I had yet another perspective from which to approach this wholly bizarre little concoction.
Sorry for the pedantic "plus meets plus" description, but if I had to sum up Excision in a nutshell, and I mean to movie fans who might actually want to see the movie, I'd call it "Teeth Meets Welcome to the Dollhouse." (There, already you know if Excision is up your alley or not.) It's the story of a very unhappy and frequently unpleasant teenage girl called Pauline (AnnaLynn McCord) who infuriates her demanding mother (Traci Lords), disgusts most of her high school peers, and spend much of her down time dreaming of exceedingly disturbing things. Pauline has a fixation with various bodily functions, to a degree, and she's quickly blossoming into quite the amateur surgeon. In another (much more simplistic) genre film, Pauline would simply be a crazy lunatic waiting to explode. At the hands of the writer/director Richard Bates Jr., she's a force-of-nature anti-heroine who somehow manages to endear herself to the viewer while in the act of alienating everyone else on the screen.
Much praise is due to the frankly ballsy performance by Ms. McCord, who "goes ugly" for most of the film but still manages to sneak a little dose of legitimate female charm into her sick and twisted Pauline character. (Among many things, Excision seems to be a sly indictment of those movies in which "ugly" girls become "pretty" by removing her pony tail and addressing a few blemishes.) At Excision's best moments it seems to be channeling a next-generation John Waters vibe (it's probably not a coincidence that the widely-admired cult director makes a brief appearance here), and at its weirdest it turns into a strangely compelling and confrontational lampoon on not only suburban America, but the numerous movies and TV shows that idolize the lowest common denominators. By the time Pauline's obsessions lead her to consider an impromptu surgery on her ailing little sister, you'll either be halfway in love with this movie -- or you'll have turned it off by now.
Truth be told, there's a lot going on in Excision, and what impressed me most is the way it turned a short into a feature. This is not a simple "stretch and pull" enlargement of a short film, but an actual expansion of the themes explored in the "littler" flick. Supporting performances from colorful folks like Lords, Waters, Roger Bart, Malcolm McDowell, Jeremy Sumpter, Ray Wise, and Marlee Matlin add a nice layer of frosting across this disturbing little cake, but it's the take-no-prisoners enthusiasm with which Bates leaps into his suburban nightmare that makes it so interesting, and it's Ms. McCord's consistently unhinged performance that makes Excision so much offbeat, creepy, challenging fun.