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Review: American Mary (Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska)

American Mary (Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska)
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PLOT: An off-kilter med student finds herself caught up in the bizarre world of body modification and crime when she begins to perform black market surgeries.

REVIEW: AMERICAN MARY is lucky to have Katharine Isabelle inhabiting the title role, because without her, it would probably be a lost cause. A quirky blend of freakshow horror flick, female-empowerment drama and off-beat character study, the film throws out a lot of interesting notions and gives us a look into an intriguing, unexplored world, but it’s neither focused enough or fascinating enough to really hook us. But thanks to Isabelle’s sly performance, it’s a watchable curiosity, albeit one with unfulfilled potential.

Isabelle plays Mary Mason, a cool-as-ice med student who enjoys sewing up turkeys in her spare time, the better to hone her surgery skills. Sexy in an unglamorous way, and confidant in a take-no-shit manner, Mary impresses her superiors with her smarts and looks to have a bright future. But she’s also dead broke (maybe she shouldn’t live in a gigantic loft?) and on the verge of not being able to pay her student loans. Looking for a quick buck, she finds an ad for a strip club that intrigues her and decides to give it a shot. But she gets more than she bargained for when she’s quickly tasked by the club’s slimy manager (Antonio Cupo) to perform surgery on a poor fellow who is being tortured in a back room. Disgusted by the act but not one to turn down a wad of cash, Mary agrees.

 

Before long, Mary is being sought out by one of the club’s more unusual employees: Beatrice (Tristan Risk), a squeaky-voiced bimbo whose had so much plastic surgery her face can barely move. Beatrice enlists Mary to perform a procedure on a friend of hers, one that will almost fully turn the woman into a walking-talking barbie doll. This, Mary can handle, and she soon delves deeper into both the seedy world of the strip club and the kinky world of body modification. (This is where people willingly have their tongues sliced in two, get horns implanted into their foreheads, things of that nature.)

AMERICAN MARY had a hold on me for its first half, as Mary succumbs to the weirdness of her new hobby and finds devious uses for it, like when she exacts revenge on her date-raping, lecherous professor. Isabelle so nails the bewitching Mary, with her caustic wit and slinky wardrobe, that we’re on board for whatever she decides to do next. But the film’s directors, The Soska Sisters (Jen and Sylvia) don’t happen to have much in mind for Mary’s third act. What ends up happening is that a lot of minor subplots are sprinkled in in lieu of one compelling thread we want to see play out. There’s an appearance from a suspicious detective, but that generates no suspense; there’s hints from the sleazy strip club guy that he’s in love with Mary, but there’s no palpable relationship built between them; Mary is approached by twin sisters (the directors) who want her to perform some kind of elaborate surgery on them, but this is dropped as quickly as it’s brought up. Don’t even get me started on the part where Mary almost kills a stripper for... I don’t even know what reason.

It’s frustrating, because Mary is a good character, deserving of a more compelling tale. I’m sure the Soska Sisters meant for the unpredictable second half of the film to play like a series of eccentric occurrences for Mary to navigate, for it’s the character they’re really interested in, not the narrative. But it comes off as murky, awkward, and my attention wavered long before the film wrapped up.

However, I must give it a slight recommendation, based on Isabelle’s portrayal of Mary alone. I have no doubt that AMERICAN MARY will be come a cult classic, and the Mary character is sure to become some sort of twisted girl-power icon. It’s worth a tentative peek, for those reasons.

Extra Tidbit: AMERICAN MARY is now available on VOD; it hits theaters on May 31st.

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