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Pretty Persuasion (Marcos Siega, 2005)
Pretty Persuasion, a high-minded teen comedy set in an exclusive private school casts a remarkably wide net, leaving few hot buttons unpressed in its skewering of a surprisingly large cross-section of American life. Centering on Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood), a startlingly mature fifteen-year-old genius who’s merely going through the obligatory motions of her life as a popular high-school student, the audacious, decidedly un-P.C. film lashes out in all directions, with considerable cynicism and double the wit. It’s a smart movie, filled largely with people who are not so smart. The effective pauses between the lines in the dialogue deliver the impression that the characters are actually thinking (or plotting, as the case may be), and the tendency of Skander Halim's script to put lingo and sound bites into their mouths only reminds us how shallow their thoughts might be. Director Marcos Siega’s tendency to hold shots is a good one, and it manages to raise the emotional stakes on more than one occasion. That’s not to imply Pretty Persuasion is not a funny film, though. Humor generally arises as lines planted early on return later as vicious punchlines. Unfortunately, this also means that the few groaners in the script (e.g. Brittany’s habit of using incorrect words) pop up as running gags. The most impressive benefit of this tendency to view material into a different light, though, occurs after a “Bag of Fun” scene that’s decidedly not much fun, when the movie takes a nastier turn, and the groundwork laid in the first part of the movie begins to pay off.
One of the prime pleasures of Pretty Persuasion is the performance of Evan Rachel Wood. Obvious even from her early stint on TV’s “Once and Again” as one of the finest young actresses working, she scores major points with what must be considered her first adult role, regardless of her character’s age. Her character’s skill at disarming those around her is uncanny and belies her years. “I respect all races, but I’m very glad I was born white,” she tells an Arab who’s just arrived at the school, flirting with racist self-deprecation before firmly establishing herself as the girl’s only true friend. Reinforcing her teacher’s belief that “high school is all Cock-Teasing 101,” she manipulates him like a master. The whole time, the actress sells her character’s vulnerability and guile, while radiating extreme intelligence. A long telephone conversation between Kimberly and her mother is a showcase for the actress, who exhibits a Kidmaneque control of her sexuality throughout (specifically, it’s To Die For that seems to be the film’s most obvious model). Even when the actress vamps excessively, the reminder that her character is only fifteen years old makes the decision seem deliberate. When Wood is on screen, which is constantly, she owns the movie and sells us on even its wildest implausibilities.
That’s not to suggest that Pretty Persuasion is without its problems. It’s tough to imagine a film this ambitious tonally and thematically not having any. The score can be overbearing at times, particularly in the early scenes where the movie is struggling to establish its tone. The thematic ambitions of the script, while admirable, especially given the genre, aren’t entirely fleshed out. For example, the decision to include the media as one of the satire’s targets opens a series of questions that remain only glibly answered. Though Kimberly, with her aspirations of an acting career, is clearly deeply influenced by the media, the film is far more concerned with how she uses it than how it uses her. Another stumbling point is the facile treatment of Kimberly’s parents. James Woods chews scenery in a distracting performance that adds little to our understanding of his character’s daughter. Her absent mother and antagonistic stepmother similarly distract our attention more than they help us to comprehend Kimberly. That’s all just as well, perhaps, since Kimberly seems not the product of others, but determinedly her own creation. Though the movie’s third act turns a mite too didactic, the chilling reminder that it’s Kimberly’s own damaged intelligence and unchecked desire for self-advancement that allow her to wholly disregard both morality and emotion provides a considerable sting. When Pretty Persuasion’s final scene rolls, with Kimberly’s plan fulfilled, it’s a credit to Wood and the filmmakers that her character is still tragic. She’s far too multi-dimensional to be merely the “cunt” her Daddy calls her.