Starring: Kathryn Isabelle, Antonio Capo, Tristan Risk, John Emmett Tracy, David Lofgren
Rated R for Strong Aberrant Violent Content including Disturbing Images, Torture, a Rape, Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and Brief Drug Use
The subject matter of "American Mary" is enough to turn off a sizable majority of the film's potential audience. I mean, how many people want to see a movie about a girl who gets into the body modification business? But the film's non-judgmental approach that ensures that this will be anything but a freak show. Rather, we see it as Mary, the film's heroine/anti-heroine sees it: par for the course.
Mary Mason (Isabelle) is an aspiring surgeon. She's almost done with medical school and about to start her residency. Unfortunately, she's broke and without a source of income. While applying for a job at a sleazy strip club, she helpfully puts her skills to use on an injured man. Her would-be employer, Billy Barker (Capo), is impressed. A stripper at the club named Beatress (Risk) asks her to do a very odd surgery on a friend of hers. Soon, Mary's skills are in high demand among those who have strange views on self-expression. But after she is raped, she uses her talents for her own benefit. Which puts her in the sights of Detective Dolor (Tracy).
There's nothing truly original about the film's plot, but the seasoning is so different that it gains an element of freshness. I can't think of any movie about body modification, and the film gives an insider look at the culture. It's not deep or philosophical, but that's okay. This isn't Merchant/Ivory, nor should it be. The cast is solid and the Soska sisters know what they're doing.
Kathryn Isabelle, today's "Scream Queen," has a challenging role. She does some reprehensible things in this movie and yet she guides us into a culture that many would find bizarre. But she pulls it off. Antonio Capo is okay as her contact, who isn't as sleazy as he first appears. He's half in lust with Mary and half terrified of her, which is an intriguing mix. Tristan Risk makes a truly weird character sympathetic. For someone who has tried to make herself look like Betty Boop, such a hurdle is difficult to overcome, but the actress makes it work. And John Emmett Tracy is also good as a cop who knows what Mary has done but also what has been done to her.
Sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska risked a lot to make this movie, even going so far as to have their parents mortgage their house to raise funds. This is a story they wanted to tell, and while passion is always good for a film, it can be bad if it's misguided or not effectively channeled. Fortunately, that's not the case here. The film is consistently engaging, although calling it a horror film will lead to unrealistic expectations. "American Mary" defies easy description, but the best way to put it is a "crime-drama/coming-of-age story."
The film suffers from a few minor errors that afflict a lot of low budget films, such as jittery editing and awkward shot selection. Overall, those are relatively minor complaints. Less easy to overlook is the ending. It's abrupt and doesn't pay off the way that it's intended. It's easy to see what the Sosa sisters were trying to do, but trying is different from succeeding.
Nevertheless, it's worth seeking out for adventurous filmgoers.