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Dealing with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse in a way rarely if ever seen onscreen, Harris Doran’s Beauty Mark introduces a woman who, though wanting nothing more than to never see her abuser again, may be forced to seek his help if she’s to hold her family together. Though its pileup of poverty, humiliation and bitterness threatens to make it a miserablist moral crusade, the film finds forward momentum in its protagonist, who is not yet ready to be destroyed by what the world has saddled her with. Thanks to a strong performance by star Auden Thornton, it pushes through despair and could attract attention at art houses, with appeal stretching beyond the abuse-survival community.
Thornton plays Angie, a 24-year-old who is barely scraping by in an unnamed Southern community, caring for her nearly mute son and a mother viewers will wish could shut up: Obese, lazy and hateful, Ruth Ann is a grotesque, luridly played by Catherine Curtin (Orange Is the New Black). When her house is condemned, Angie has to find the three of them a new place to live. She learns of a rental that’s nearly within her meager price range, but in a standout scene, Angie sees that her desperation is matched by the dire straits of her would-be landlords. They come to a compromise, only to realize Angie hasn’t planned on needing to pay three times the monthly rent to move in. She needs $1,700, and needs it now.
After running through her options and determining they’re hopeless, Angie picks the scab off a wound: The man from her church who molested her when she was five is well-off, she knows. Though she has tried to forget the crime, she is now forced to try to make him pay for what he did.
We are briefly in territory familiar from many stories of sexual misconduct’s aftermath: Angie faces statutes of limitations, struggles to get other victims to come forward and is shamed for her willingness to seek money as compensation. Doran’s script makes all this part of Angie’s struggle without harping on any of the familiar elements, though, and soon he has pushed her into more extreme dramatic ground.
Suffice to say that, in multiple settings, she is forced to deal one-on-one with her abuser — Jeff Kober’s Bruce, drawn with excruciating but not unnuanced ickiness — and to beat down her natural responses, pretending that he isn’t a monster. It’s hard to imagine, given her plight, what else she might do.
Even after choosing this path, though, Angie has a struggle ahead, needing help from a childhood friend who is now a stripper (Laura Bell Bundy) and, God help her, from Ruth Ann. In both cases, the help is ugly and leaves everyone tainted. (Those expecting Ruth Ann to ultimately win our sympathy, like Bridget Everett’s holy trainwreck of a mother in Patti Cake$, shouldn’t hold their breath.) But Angie persists, doing what she must but never rationalizing it: “It’s just a —,” she is told at one point, by a friend who has already made her deals with the Devil. “No, it’s not just a —,” Angie replies. Helped along by a rootsy score by Kentucky songwriter Ben Sollee, the movie argues that enduring the unthinkable doesn’t have to rob you of your soul.
Production companies: The Group Entertainment, Madison Square Films
Cast: Auden Thornton, Catherine Curtin, Jeff Kober, Laura Bell Bundy, Deirdre Lovejoy, Timoty Morton
Director-screenwriter: Harris Doran
Producers: Bridget Berger, Harris Doran, Penny Edmiston, Corey Moosa, Kiley Lane Parker
Executive producers: Carey Nelson Burch, Gill Holland, Shannon Houchins, Potsy Ponciroli
Director of photography: Karina Silva
Production designer: Lauren Argo
Editors: Harris Doran, Saira Haider
Composer: Ben Sollee
Casting director: Henry Russell Bergstein
Venue: Woodstock Film Festival
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