(Image: and Harris Doran)

(Image: and Harris Doran)

Official selection of the 13th Beloit International Film Festival


Many internal and external situations can cause feelings of desperation.  Straits get so dire that horrible choices become the only choices. For Angie in Beauty Mark, played by emerging TV actress Auden Thornton, the burdensome weights (and they are sure plural) around her neck are overbearing.  When those burdens and stresses pile on at the same time, the desperation of her situation becomes overwhelming in this excellent and hardscrabble family drama from writer-director Harris Doran.  Beauty Mark is one of the finest independent films of this new year.

Angie is the only working breadwinner, holding down a lowly convenience store clerk job under the watch of her exasperated boss Wyatt (mumblecore vet Timothy Morton) who has observed her poor choices and work responsibilities for years.  She is raising her mixed-race son without early childhood education and the one-night stand father long gone. The two live with Angie’s surly and depressed mother Ruth Ann (Catherine Curtin of Stranger Things), a volatile and depressed drunk of the highest order.  

LESSON #1: LIVING OFF YOUR CHILDREN-- Ruth Ann is a drink-a-beer-with-a-straw kind of lady.  She is low on social graces and personal volume control that she turns off and on to suit how she wants to look to certain people.  Getting a job of her own is not on that list because she truly is incapable. Tired from decades of own her own self-inflicted burdens, she has reached a defeated place of pride where she must now depend on Angie, who cannot turn her back on family even if that family isn’t exactly quick or truthful to show gratitude.  

With things already hard, the family’s ramshackle Louisville area house is declared condemned because of mold.  Faced with a sheriff’s order of eviction, it’s up to Angie to pull together the money to find a new home. The lengths which Angie will go revisits and opens up old wounds.  As a child, she was subjected to several forms of abuse, plenty coming from Ruth Ann, but the worst was the sexual variety committed by a man named Bruce (Jeff Kober, recently of Sully and TV's Sons of Anarchy) during Angie’s elementary years spent with her church youth group.  Those crimes are past the statute of limitations where Angie cannot seek legal action or settlement rewards that could help her predicament.

LESSON #2: ADULT SURVIVORS ESCAPING OLD SCARS-- The mental scars have never left.  One of the reasons they won’t fade is the constant lack of empathetic support from Ruth Ann.  The mother’s constant downward spiral keeps the blackout triggers and perpetrators of Angie’s abuses, including Bruce, ever-present in their community and social circles.  Until distance and separation from the causes occur, coping and closure are going to be extremely difficult.

Angie’s only helpful presence is a childhood friend named Lorraine, played by country western singer and former Jumanji child actress Laura Bell Bundy.  She is a stripper who is always ready to offer Angie the cash-money job found on the stage in a pair of heels.  Angie may have her hands open in need, but she (and we) hope it doesn’t have to come to that.

Every part of this film that goes to an unsettling place or each opposing moment that shows glimmers of hope within disparity hinge on the light shining out of Auden Thornton’s extraordinary performance.  The strength she imbues in Angie’s light frame to weather the emotional drama of the character’s life with physical nuance and measured expression is impressive for a young actress. Casting directors, get this woman more opportunities to demonstrate this talent beyond any pretty face.

Gilded with highly effective empathy and bracing honesty, Beauty Mark won the Audience Award from the 2017 Austin Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize for Breakout Performance by Auden Thornton.  The accolades are well deserved towards writer and director Harris Doran for this, his debut feature. The care and consideration he infused into the script and direction of this film pierce with integrity and purposeful reflection.  Inspired by a true story, not a drop of sap or sensationalization exists in Beauty Mark.  In different or more commercial hands, this would bleed with overacting, speechifying, and sanctimony.  Instead, much like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, the compassion Doran's film stirs for economic and social challenges is genuine and resolute.

LESSON #3: UNDERSTANDING OTHERS-- Beauty Mark is an ideal example of the old adage of “don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in their shoes.”  Don’t watch a film like this and spend the first 30 minutes shaking your entitled finger to harp “go get a better job” or “that’s what you get for your past mistakes.”  Living through real troubles don’t come with easy decisions and simple changes that help instantly and completely.  Learn more.  See and hear their story and find understanding, and that goes for us watching the film and the characters within it.  There’s a great line that reads “You don’t have to sentence everyone all the time.” There’s a wonderful truth to that.