Pretty Persuasion

Sundance Film Festival (World Premiere)–Marcos Siegas Pretty Persuasion is a tough and cynical genre film with a twist, taking the female high-school satire farther and deeper than such predecessors as Heathers (which also came out of Sundance) and Mean Girls (a studio picture).

Centering on a trio of high school girls, Pretty Persuasion is a darkly humorous satire that, unlike most films of its genre, is not confined to its setting, the high school, but aims to comment on various timely social issues: coming of age, adolescent sexuality, lack of parental authority, sexual harassment, manipulation of the already biased and manipulative news media, racism in and outside the classroom, and, above all, the obsession with achieving celebrity at any cost.

Following up her bravura performance in Thirteen, Evan Rachel Wood (who could also be seen this season as Joan Allen's daughter in The Upside of Anger) could not have made a better choice of role. At the young age of 16, Wood, who is in almost every scene and effortlessly dominates the entire picture, establishes herself the most versatile and talented actress of her generation.

Wood has already been nominated for a Golden Globe, SAG and BFCA Award for her role in Thirteen, a harrowing teenage drama about a totally lost girl. Thematically, Pretty Persuasion is a logical follow-up for Wood. Both pictures convey the sorrows and pains of growing up in a media-saturated society, without any guidance or help from the adult world, represented by the not entirely responsible, responsive, and mature teachers and parents.

The difference between Thirteen and Pretty Persuasion is in tone, lingo, and ambition. If the former film was done as an emotional melodrama about the tumultuous relationship between a young, drug-addicted mother (brilliantly played by Holly Hunter) and daughter, Pretty Persuasion is a dark, really black, satire, with biting humor that cuts deep into the bone. The movie focuses on, among other issues, the candid but disturbing relationship between a father (James Woods) and a daughter. In both films, the parents are at a complete loss of how to treat their daughters; in Pretty Persuasion, the mother is totally absent.

There's also a difference in social class. Set in Venice, California, Thirteen is a working-class melodrama, whereas Pretty Persuasions is situated in the upper-middle class, though it makes finer distinctions between the nouveau rich, old-time money, and riches amongst foreign students in the U.S., in this case a Muslim girl, who is Kimberly's classmate and becomes her accomplice.

As for lingo, Skander Halim's sharp satire employs the most sexually explicit and harsh dialogue to be heard in an American movie, indie or Hollywood, over the past decade. When a father addresses his daughter as “a dirty little whore who gets it up her ass,” or describes his ex-wife as “a big cunt,” you know you are witnessing a feature that many viewers will perceive as shocking, excessive, and in bad taste. The whole movie may be “too much” for the more conservative public.

While a large proportion of features at Sundance are written and directed by the same artist, Pretty Persuasion may benefit from the fact that it is helmed by the gifted Marcos Siega, a music video director, who gives the film a distinctive visual look and fast tempo, dwelling on the more significant sub-themes while underplaying or rushing through the less important ones. In this respect, the film represents a wonderful collaboration between a writer and a director, though, initially, Halim hoped to direct his own script.

At first sight, Pretty Persuasion registers as a black comedy of the absurd, a chronicle of the daily life of one extremely beautiful, bright, and ambitious girl, Kimberly Joyce (Wood), who's worldly-wise beyond her age and too smart for her own good. As a screen character, she may be a contemporary reincarnation–and I think the film's title plays on this idea as well–of Jean Simmons in the noir Angel Face, Tuesday Weld in Pretty Poison, and Drew Barrymore in Poison Ivy.

In looks and conduct, Kimberly may be a younger version of the equally amoral and immoral TV weather reporter Nicole Kidman played in Gus Van Sant's underestimated satire, To Die For.

Kimberly is described by her school principal and teachers as a malicious girl with an angelic face and seductive powers. Coldly-calculated, Kimberly uses and abuses her seductive looks to her benefit in every encounter, be it a male student she wants to sleep with, an English and drama teacher (“Sex and the City”'s Ron Livingston) who may cast her in the lead of the school's production of The Diary of Anne Frank, and even a lesbian reporter, Emily Klein (Jane Krakowski), who is assigned to reporting the sexual harassment case.

In other words, Kimberly is a monstrous girl who is both amoral and immoral, willing to use her body and brain to accomplish as quickly as possible her main goal: fame. The means to achieve celebrity and ethical considerations, sexual orientation, or friendship, become irrelevant. Worse yet, in seducing the TV reporter, Kimberly quotes verbatim lines she had heard in porn flicks, like “I love cock, but once in a while, I can use a woman's touch.”

A product of a broken family, Kimberly now lives with her dad (Woods), a man whose favorite leisure is sex phone while drinking, smoking dope and masturbating. Kimberly's absent mother is not interested in her daughter's welfare. There is one brief scene, in which Kimberly calls her mom after a long time, in which her mom utters some generic remarks (we hear her voice, but don't see her), only to terminate the conversation due to more pressing issues.

The film's first reel is an extended long take (interrupted and cut), in which Kimberly and Randa Azzouni (Adi Schnall) walk through the high school turf, in which Kimberly delivers one long monologue about her goal to become an actress, her philosophy of life, and her biases. Halim the writer doesn't spare the viewers any racist slurs, here addressed against Afro-Americans, Muslim (Kimberly tells Randa that she is not the type to engage in terrorism), Orthodox and other kinds of Jews. Just about any racial group is subjected to an examination of how it is labeled by Kimberly and, by extension, American culture at large.

Making a strong case that Anne Frank was a dark-haired girl, Kimberly gets the part, which devastates her “best friend,” Brittaney Wells (Elisabeth Harnois), a slightly more honest but not as bright girl, now dating a hot classmate who had jilted Kimberly, when he found out what a slut she is. In a flashback, we see the humiliating encounter between Kimberly and the boy, who claims he can't afford to date a loser and easy lay like her.

Kimberly loses the desirable part, when she is caught off guard, making a racist remark to a Jewish student whose father is a respectable lawyer. From then on, things deteriorate, particularly after Kimberly and her girlfriends are detained. Seeking revenge against their drama teacher Percy, in no time the beautiful Kimberly persuades her friends to charge him with sexual harassment.

Instead of telling the story in linear, progressive manner, Halim opts for a more complex structure, in which episodes in the past are shown in flashbacks, and sometimes in flashbacks within flashbacks. Disregarding chronology, title cards often announce, one month earlier or one month later. This particular structure makes the film more suspenseful, and also enables the viewers to validate what they have heard from the characters subjective POV with what has actually occurred in a more objective and neutral manner.

Pretty Persuasion is more multi-layered than most farces. Just when you think you have figured out all of the tangled relationships, Halim keeps surprising with new twists and subplots. His screenplay is rich and dense in ideas, going way beyond the revenge scheme of three girls.

Indeed, seemingly minor incidents, such as the detention, spiral out of control and in due time lead to truly harrowing and even tragic results for the key participants, particularly Randa (For obvious reasons, they can't be revealed here).

No character escapes Halim's critical eye. Hence, the teacher Percy may not be a pedophile, but he is not entirely innocent either. He buys his beautiful wife Grace (Selma Blair) a mini skirt (his students' uniform) for her birthday and suggests that she strip and try them on in front of him. To which Grace more than responds, when she matches the mini with long white socks and does an impersonation of his female students, partially satisfying her lover's voyeuristic desires and attraction to adolescents.

In a Q&A after the screening, Halim said: “The genesis of the idea came to me while I was in high school in my home town of Ottawa, Canada. This story surfaced about this local eighth grade girl, who accused a teacher of molesting her. I remember book-marking this as the beginning of an idea for a script.”

A title card in the credits sequence states that it's based on a true story, but the factuality of the source material is irrelevant since the satire is well written, poignant in themes, and impressively directed, particularly for a second feature. Prior to Pretty Persuasion, Siega had shot an action comedy, The Underclassmen, that Miramax will release later this year.

Halim also recalled that a few years after the incident, “I was just out of college, and I was in L.A. reading scripts for production companies, and it struck me that this was the perfect setting for that story. I wrote it as 'The Script That Could Never Get Made,' and I was shocked when it did.” Hopefully, Pretty Persuasion will find receptive audiences when it plays theatrically.

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