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May 12, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 12, 2006 |

Independent films exist in eternal paradox: They flaunt their individuality while attempting to look like something familiar so that people will actually buy tickets. The best way to be unique is to tell the American movie-going audience where they’ve seen the story before, a tough obstacle for smaller films to overcome. Pretty Persuasion will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Heathers, Mean Girls, Election, and even brief moments from Clueless, and while it is partially reminiscent of those films, such comparisons do not begin to describe the sharp wit, pointed satire, and excessively dark humor found in the latest film from Marcos Siega. Siega’s directing work has mainly been in television, including several episodes of cult fave “Veronica Mars,” which explains his ability to naturally portray the feelings and abilities of teenagers.

It also helps that the cast is led by an actual teenager, Evan Rachel Wood, who turns 18 in September. Wood made her first real impact in Thirteen, and Persuasion cements her status as one of the only up-and-coming female actors with any noticeable talent. Here, Wood plays Kimberly Joyce, the high school sophomore and ultra-alpha-girl at the center of a media maelstrom involving sexual harassment charges against a teacher at her prep school. “It’s like the whole world is this orchestra and I’m the conductor,” she observes, and she’s right. Every sordid detail and broken life that emerges from the story can be traced back to her.

We meet through Kimberly through Randa (Adi Schnall), a soft-spoken Middle-Eastern girl whose family has just moved to Beverly Hills and enrolled her in Roxbury Academy, the prestigious private school where Kimberly and best friend Brittany (Elizabeth Harnois) spend their vapid days wandering through a meaningless life of opulence and sexual misconduct. Randa is the film’s pure, beating heart, and the only girl with a basic grasp on human decency, so we know early on she’ll suffer the most. Kimberly and Brittany introduce her to sex by watching a porno with her, and also teach her how to purge herself after binging on Twinkies. Kimberly stole both the dirty video and the junk food from her father, Henry (James Woods), a coke-snorting phone-sex fiend who makes Archie Bunker look like Edith. Henry is also quite the ranting racist, telling stories at the dinner table about how he thinks his Jewish coworkers are speaking in “Yid code” and plotting against him. Apparently, the apple doesn’t fall far from the psycho, as is evidenced by Kimberly’s casual announcement to Randa: “I have respect for all races, but I’m very happy I was born white.” Kimberly’s airy manner and inane observations voiced as profound discoveries bear some semblance to Alicia Silverstone’s Cher in Clueless, but that’s where the similarities end: Cher wanted to take over the mall, but Kimberly is going to conquer the world.

The main narrative, such as it is, deals with the sexual harassment suit brought by Kimberly, Brittany, and Randa against Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston), their English and drama teacher. The catch is that although Anderson might be technically innocent, in his mind he’s committed the acts countless times. His perverted obsession with Kimberly even pushes him to buy his wife a gray skirt like the one worn by the girls at Roxbury and having her act out a naughty schoolgirl fantasy. Anderson isn’t a pedophile, just a creep, but that’s the only crack his armor needs for Kimberly to take him down. As another teacher observes to Anderson, “The devil wears a gray skirt, my friend, and her name is Kimberly Joyce.”

Thanks to a power-hungry TV journalist (Jane Krakowski), the harassment suit makes big news, and the girls find themselves the centers of attention, which is just the way Kimberly wants it. She is, after all, conducting this mess, and the way she leads it to its climax is astonishing and disturbing. A far cry from your typical teen movie, Pretty Persuasion traces Kimberly’s ascent through the media circus to the beginnings of real power. Unfortunately, we get the sense that she doesn’t know what to do with it when she’s got it, or even why she’s going after it in the first place.

Kimberly’s a lonely girl, living with a father who doesn’t care about her and a stepmother only a few years older than Kimberly is. Her real mother is a phantom, making only one brief phone call to her daughter during the film to tell her happy birthday, except she gets Kimberly’s age wrong. Kimberly, however, is a real girl, not a stereotype. A two-dimensional ice queen would have been nothing but a villain, a shrewd but unpitiable monster. But Siega’s direction and Wood’s amazing depth turn Kimberly into a mournful character, only a few degrees removed from the killers that roamed the halls of high schools in the late ’90s. She destroys everything around her for no other reason than her own amusement, pulling the story into its satisfying but not quite fulfilling resolution.

Altogether, Pretty Persuasion comes off as slightly uneven, with the moments of pointed humor, albeit brilliant, coming just a little too far and few between. Years from now, it will be remembered as one of Wood’s early films, when she was still sharpening her skills, before she moved on to bigger and better projects. Those are the films I’m eager to see.

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Growing Bald.

Pretty Persuasion / Daniel Carlson

Film | May 12, 2006 |

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