Opens Fri Sept 9
The inherent evils of high school should never be underrated—which is probably why indie cinema revels in exploiting it. One can almost picture the nebbishy future screenwriters of America being mercilessly harassed and later turning their trauma into Hollywood gold. Such is the case for Pretty Persuasion; a considerably sharper than average exploration into the darkest crevices of education.
Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen, TV's Once and Again) stars as the shockingly amoral, sexy, and manipulative Kimberly Joyce, an attendee of a posh Beverly Hills private school who's intent on becoming a famous actress. Her world is a cold, creepy one, complete with a blustery racist dad (James Woods), a teacher with pedophilic leanings (Ron Livingston), and a best friend with more desirable physical attributes (Elisabeth Harnois). Kimberly decides the best way to achieve fame (among her other, more diabolical needs) is to frame her teacher for sexual harassment. As it turns out, this scheme is only the tip of Kimberly's true and inherently more evil master plan.
As characters go, Evan Rachel Wood's Kimberly runs circles around the Reese Witherspoon's similar role in Election. Played with ice water in her veins, it's hard for the viewer to know when Kimberly is being generous or simply setting up a pawn for his/her inevitable fall. The supporting actors are similarly skilled, with the Tourettes-inflicted racial slurs of James Woods being a highlight, as well as the sad hilarity of Adi Schnall as the manipulated Middle-Eastern exchange student.
Marcos Siega's direction is more than competent, as he creates a stifling world for this cast of deeply fucked characters. The only drawback comes from the basic plot. Stories of "evil, manipulative high school girls" often reflect back on the insecurities of the writer—in this case, Skander Halim, who paints such an unredeemable character that it makes me question whether the screenwriter shouldn't get some therapy to help him come to grips with the women from his past. Regardless, Pretty Persuasion is a pitch-black comedy for those who revel in such things, and a must-see for anyone who's convinced their high school unpopularity was a result of conspiracy and subterfuge.