In the Sundance grad Pretty Persuasion, teen actress Evan Rachel Wood plays Kimberly Joyce, a promiscuous wannabe actress at a ritzy private high school who recruits a couple of classmates to frame a teacher for sexual harassment in a bid for the "edge" she needs over other equally young, equally pretty, equally shameless would-be stars.
Wood is a talented young performer, and following Thirteen and The Upside of Anger, it's clear she's following the Scarlett Johansson template for adult stardom: smart, precocious roles in quality films rather than standard-issue mall-teen comedies. That Kimberly Joyce is not actually a smart role and Pretty Persuasion is not a quality film shouldn't hurt Wood, who acquits herself well considering what little she has to work with.
Helmed by music-video vet Marcos Siega, Pretty Persuasion is a film that desperately wants to be audacious and irreverent but is instead almost painfully derivative, splicing in elements of many other better movies: Kimberly is a beautiful, icy, amoral publicity-seeker in the mold of Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Her competitive classmates are somewhere between Heathers and Mean Girls. Her vengeful confrontation with an overmatched teacher is straight from Election. The presence of a scheming, opportunistic TV-babe reporter is borrowed from Scream. And Pretty Persuasion's half-hearted Columbine references just make you want to rewatch Gus Van Zant's great Elephant.
Similarly, Pretty Persuasion is a satire that shoots indiscriminately in all directions in the hope of hitting something, whether it be the modern teen's penchant for oral sex, post-9/11 racism, or the persecution complex of old, rich white guys. Kimberly and her best friend are portrayed as monsters, and though there's some attempt to show how the monster is made, even the overheated Thirteen was sharper on this subject. Perhaps most disappointingly, Pretty Persuasion wastes the always interesting Ron Livingston (Office Space) in a wildly underwritten variation on Matthew Broderick's tormented teacher from Election.
If Pretty Persuasion's attempt at all-purpose satire never quite takes hold, the movie truly flies off the tracks at the end -- a preposterous narrative twist followed by an even more preposterous emotional one, a limp bid for sympathy considering the acid tone the film has been struggling to cultivate.
Ultimately, what is meant to be a satire is instead closer to exploitation. Pretty Persuasion rides on the ostensible shock value of a foaming James Woods spewing all kinds of racist and sexist bile as Kimberly's father (an opportunity the actor no doubt cherished) and the ostensible titillation of comely teens watching porno and discussing anal sex.
Opening Friday, September 23rd