I was pretty much persuaded to like this independent film in the early going, when it had a distinctive and edgy style that reminded me of "Desperate Housewives." If you've seen that show, then you know what I'm talking about: an ironic tone where people say dark things with a calm and placid voice against a chipper background and musical score. In fact, that same tone also pervaded another darkly comic teen flick—"Heathers"—though there are moments in "Pretty Persuasion" that will also remind viewers of that brighter satire of teen- malice, "Mean Girls."
Evan Rachel Wood turns in a fine performance as jaded high schooler Kimberly Joyce, a gangly young woman who's already learned to use sex to her advantage and aspires to achieve a heckuva lot more than those 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol promised everyone. Kimberly gloms onto a new Muslim girl, thinking out loud to her shy friend that by hanging out with her Randa (Adi Schnall) be exposed to guys, and Kimberly will look so much better to guys when they see her compared to her Arab friend. Nice, you're thinking? Wait. It gets better. Or worse. She proceeds to share with her new friend a prioritized list of minorities she'd want to be born as if she couldn't have the best situation for a female, which is to be born Caucasian. Needless to say, after a rundown of ethnic groups (and I mean that as a pun), Kimberly finally gets around to Arabs, which she pronounces dead-last on her list. Such is the stuff that friendships are based on, right?
Kimberly's other gal-pal is Brittany Wells (Elisabeth Harnois), who is just as catty and just as conniving. In fact, there's this thing they have over the same guy. At any rate, for the first third of this film the tone is edgy and the humor right on the surface—a satire of high school, sexual mores, and social strata. Kimberly is shown to be a girl who will try anything once—even having a guy from high school have anal intercourse with her (which, it may relieve some of you to know, despite an R-rating for language and sexual situations, isn't shown).
As Kimberly tries out for a part in the school play, sexual politics get a real workout. She senses that the popular English teacher who's supervising the play is attracted to the girls he teaches, and proceeds to capitalize on that. Why not punish him for his thoughts AND cop some free publicity that might launch all of them on their acting careers (translation: HER acting career, and her friends be damned) if they all three claim that Mr. Livingston (Percy Anderson) molested them. Oh, the publicity! It's a short-cut to the casting couch, she figures.
Never mind that it's unbelievable—at least as it's presented here—is able to con her friends into joining this charade, especially when Randa comes from such a strict family. But suffice it to say that there's a trial and a tragedy and an upset Mrs. Livingston (Selma Blair, in a role that she can barely sink her teeth into). And what kind of an upbringing did Kimberly have? Where are her parents? Well, she lives with dad (James Woods), who's so busy with his work and his pills and his booze and his tripped-out cursing to pay much attention to her until it's too late.
Suddenly, the witty, edgy tone and the interesting plot trajectory goes south—like, way south—and the "Heathers"-style teen antics yields to straight soap-opera drama and social satire that couldn't be less subtle if the director brought back Peter, Paul and Mary to sing "If I Had a Hammer." In this case, make it a sledgehammer. When the film stuck to teen issues—like manipulation and competition based on sex and gender and social standing—it seemed right on target. But when it headed down a more standard dramatic path and aimed for broader social commentary, we suddenly get more exposition than a classroom full of pedants. Except, that is, for a handful of sharp observations. In one such moment, Kimberly reacts to Randa's telling her she wants to become a doctor because she wants to help poor people by saying, dismissively, "In America, doctors don't help the poor." Had the script continued with such concise and precise comments, everything would have been fine. But there are entire scenes where the characters stand toe-to-toe, soap opera style, and give these long explanations and critiques. The plot also gets unnecessarily convoluted in a very unsatisfying way.
When lesbian TV reporter Emily Klein ("Ally McBeal" star Jane Krakowski) tries to cover the trial and it becomes unclear whether she's using Kimberly or Kimberly's using her, things become more complicated in a very unsatisfying way. Some viewers will have a hard time getting past the racial slurs—random things directed at Arabs, like "diaper head" to refer to the Muslim head covering that Randa wears, or a boy walking up and pointing to her head and laughing—while others may be put off by the sexual shenanigans. In other words, be warned that "Pretty Persuasion" is about as politically incorrect as it gets, but ultimately director Marcos Siega seems to have a hard time deciding if he's satirizing or perpetuating offensive behavior. He also seems torn between making us laugh and making us think. Sometimes he's able to have it both ways, but over the course of this 110-minute film, moments like that don't come often enough. Shock value is only worth so much.
Video: The picture, mastered in High Definition and presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, looks great, with rich color saturation. No complaints here.
Audio: Same with the English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which has a nice mix so that there's a sense of ambient sounds in the background, where they belong.
Extras: There are no extras.
Bottom Line: Evan Rachel Wood has got a promising career ahead of her, with a near-commanding presence that makes her stand out—even in a script riddled with high school students who tend to look and sound alike. And while the other performers aren't as charismatic, they're still solid. The bottom line, though, is that none of them are strong enough to elevate the film above its inconsistencies.