Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Reclaim Your Body, Reclaim Your Life

American Mary (2012)
Directors: Jen and Sylvia Soska
Rating: 7 / 10
Seen via: Xlrator DVD

American Mary is the second film by Jen and Sylvia Soska, a duo comprised of twin sisters who previously wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the faux-grindhouse feature Dead Hooker in a Trunk (still unseen by me). Both American Mary and their previous film have attracted a lot of attention online, and it's encouraging to see a couple of independent features getting the recognition and publicity these two films have. But is there substance behind the hype? I'm happy to be able to say yes in this case.

Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) is a medical school student whose passion for surgery runs deep. So deep that she even practices stitching up store-bought frozen turkeys at night after class. But Mary's struggling with earning enough money to pay her bills and still find the time to study, and it's beginning to take a toll on her grades. As a last resort, she heads down to the local strip club to apply for a job as a dancer. The interview seems to be going well, but it's interrupted when a friend of the owner is brought in bleeding from some criminal dealings gone wrong. Mary's suturing skills come in handy, and she's willing to help for some quick cash. Stitching up criminals isn't exactly what she has in mind for her future though, so she tries to forget the job as quickly as possible.

...and also sort of fears for her life for a while.
Word travels though, and pretty soon she's receiving inquiries from some customers looking for someone to perform unorthodox surgical procedures on them. Beatress (Tristan Risk) is a woman who through plastic surgery has taken on the likeness of Betty Boop as much as her physical form will allow. Her friend Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg) has a similar desire to alter her body, only she wishes to become a life-sized Barbie doll. (Use your imagination to figure out what that entails.) Despite some hesitancy, Mary really needs the cash, and reluctantly agrees to perform the procedures. Can she continue working toward a career as a surgeon while leading a double life as a practitioner in the world of body modification, or will things go horribly wrong when the two worlds collide?


I was totally on board for the first forty minutes of this film. Mary is a believable, interesting character presented with a series of unique moral quandaries. It's refreshing to see a film that blows the Bechdel test out of the water by focusing on a cast of female characters who are actively seeking empowerment. Whether they're attaining nonconformist idealizations of physical beauty or mastering a skill in a traditionally male-dominated field, the women of American Mary are all well-drawn characters. I'm also a sucker for stories centered around medicine and surgery, so extending these themes to their more extreme underground manifestations had me sold.

My biggest issue with the film is a plot point that occurs about halfway through. I can't talk about it without major spoilers, so be warned.

Spoilers after the dream sequence...

It's a shame that the film feels the need to allow its second half to be driven by a rape/revenge plot. Mary's rape at the hands of her supervisor is a quick way to bring the tension between her and the misogynist boys-club of the med school to a head. It's also a way for her to become fully immersed in her extracurricular surgery. I get why it was included, but it feels almost like a cop-out for a story that seemed to be building to something more complex.

After her rape, Mary transforms from a fully fleshed-out character to a seemingly infallible (and slightly bloodthirsty) master of all forms of cosmetic surgery. Had she reached this point more gradually I would have been more inclined to buy it. The fact that it happens nearly instantly puts a strain on the film's believability. Also, did her self-actualization have to come at the expense of being raped? After this point the plot becomes somewhat muddled - morphing into a combination of revenge story, police procedural, and the continuing saga of Mary's underground surgical practice. It doesn't feel as tight or interesting as the first half, likely because we know how the general trajectory of the story will unfold from here.

End spoilers

American Mary is worth checking out despite its uneven second half. I'm interested to see what the Soska sisters do in the future (even if I'm somewhat wary of the fact that they've joined WWE entertainment to direct the sequel to the seemingly lackluster See No Evil). They've shown themselves to be capable of delivering some fresh ideas with American Mary. Hopefully they'll continue to do so in the future, and also make sure to perform a little bit of cosmetic surgery on their scripts.

Their fake German accents could also use some work.

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