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Pretty Persuasion (8/10)

by Tony Medley

This could just as easily have been called “Mean Girls meet The Crucible.” Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood) is a precocious 15-year-old at a high school where the wealthy send their children. Her friends, Brittany Wells (Elisabeth Harnois) and Randa Azzouni (Adi Schnall) are followers, who are in thrall of Kimberly. Kimberly’s father, Hank Joyce (James Woods), is an unrealistic bigot, probably the weakest part of the movie. He’s got a trophy wife, Kathy (Jaime King), who is subject to constant verbal abuse from Kimberly.

Percy Anderson (Ron Livingston) is an English teacher who looks like he’s got some kind of problem with sex. The film moves along with Kimberly manipulating just about everyone. When all three girls have problems with Percy, suddenly Percy finds himself a defendant in a sexual abuse trial represented by a friend who is also an incompetent attorney.

This is a dark, dark comedy. Kimberly is not just precocious, not just a sexual predator, she’s a total predator of all things. The film shows high school kids who are more sexually experienced than many adults.

The depiction of Kimberly’s home life is starkly negative. Hank is an over the top jerk, always dressed in a slovenly robe and underpants and concerned only with himself. But we are supposed to believe that he’s a successful businessman with a reputation to protect, a concept that’s virtually impossible to swallow. There is one disgusting scene in which we see Hank pleasuring himself with phone sex. Hank is such an unrealistic character that the film loses momentum when he’s onscreen.

Regardless, this is a devastating portrait of a sociopathic teenager, one who reveres another teenager accused of a Columbine type massacre. Wood gives a brilliant performance as the manipulative, cold sociopath. The film has its funny moments, but, in the end, it’s darkly serious.

It took four years for writer Skander Halim to get his script produced. Director-co-producer Marcos Siega read the script and wanted to direct it, but had a problem. Halim wanted to direct. But after meeting with Halim, and being promised that  he would “fight not to let anyone change the script or turn it into another teen comedy” by Siega, Halim withdrew his demand to be a director and turned it over to Siega. Good decision because Siega directs the film in a way that telegraphs to the audience that there is more to this film than a selfish girl and some funny lines. There’s something that’s going to happen.

You might not like the in-your-face sexuality of the characters. You might not like the language. But you won’t get bored.

July 29, 2005