Everyone’s abused or abusive, a perv, a prostitute or a wannabe, in “On the Doll.” Humorless first feature by writer-director Thomas Mignone strains so hard to shock that this criss-crosser set among various L.A. denizens soon passes from the contrived to the ridiculous. Some cast names and Mignone’s rep as musicvid helmer for the thrash/death metal likes of Slipknot, Sepultura and Megadeth — whose tenor is stretched to feature length here — guarantee at least limited commercial life, with DVD and cable sales likeliest.
Nominal protagonist is Jaron (Josh Janowicz), a young loner who works for sleazy publisher “Uncle” Lou (Marcus Giamatti) to buy back the freedom of his friend Tara (Angela Sarafyan), who for unknown reasons is obligated to work in a peep show that’s one of Jimmy’s (Paul Ben-Victor) many semilegal operations. Call girl Balery (Brittany Snow) shows up to place an ad that’s a bit too much even for Lou’s sex rag: seeking an accomplice to help her rob a regular client she particularly dislikes. Sparking with Balery, Jaron decides to take up the offer himself.
Meanwhile, aspiring artist Chantel (Shanna Collins) turns tricks to support argumentative, ungrateful boyfriend Wes (Clayne Crawford), who only cares about his own theoretical music career.
Third major strand involves Melody (Candice Accola) and Courtney (Chloe Domont), students of high school health teacher Mr. Garrett (Eddie Jemison). They catch him masturbating in his car, encourage it with a little Lolita-style posturing, then let him take them to a “modeling” agency run by none other than Jimmy, who smirks, “In two weeks I’ll have these girls doin’ hardcore.”
Convoluted tale is somewhat awkwardly bracketed by two violent incidents, one involving a cop’s bullet, the other the beating of Jaron’s abusive stepfather in his hospital bed. Figuring in the latter event are cast’s veterans, James Russo (as a janitor) and Theresa Russell, who plays Jaron’s mother, a shrink specializing in child-abuse cases. Title comes from the frequent court request that a child molestation victim show where they were abused on a doll’s torso.
Starting with graphic imagery of maggots consuming a dead baby bird — now that’s symbolism — “On the Doll” announces its dark seriousness right away. But the script is so luridly contrived and sensational, the characters so lacking in depth, that what Mignone intends as explosive comes off as exploitative. Too melodramatic to be taken as realism, but not self-aware enough to function as Lynchian Grand Guignol, the movie winds up an expression of victim culture as attitudinal cool. For a few viewers, particularly those who think life is one big angry vintage Korn song, that approach will have considerable appeal.
On the plus side, Mignone has delivered a fairly tight package that draws generally good performances from thesps in largely one-dimensional roles. Muted color palette is most notable aspect of technically accomplished pic’s willfully grubby aesthetic.