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Newshound: Jane Krakowski delivers the scandals in 'Pretty Persuasion.'

Pretty Vacant

Teen film 'Pretty Persuasion' tries for black comedy but ends up in mushy gray area

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

SOME CLEVER filmmakers realized, beginning in the 1980s, that high school could serve as a perfect microcosm for the ludicrous behavior of adults. By reflecting this grown-up behavior as juvenile, the material automatically morphed into satire. And teens, who love to see adults ridiculed, found the material doubly entertaining. Probably the three finest models of the genre, Heathers (1989), Clueless (1995) and Election (1999)—not to mention last year's Mean Girls, which was a fairly entertaining distillation of its predecessors—serve as examples to help explain what the new film Pretty Persuasion does wrong.

Evan Rachel Wood, who gave such a frightening air of reality to Thirteen, stars as Kimberly Joyce, a student at a ritzy Beverly Hills high school. Kimberly hopes to be an actress, and it's clear that she's "on" and performing all the time. When Randa (Adi Schnall), a Middle Eastern student, arrives on campus, Kimberly takes her under her wing, but only for the free social cred she will earn for doing so. Before long, Kimberly enlists both Randa and her other best friend, dimwitted blonde Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois), in a scheme to nail one of their teachers (Ron Livingston, Office Space) on pedophilia charges.

Writer Skander Halim and director Marcos Siega make their first blunder by structuring Pretty Persuasion in such a way as to "surprise" us with various twists. Since we don't trust Kimberly anyway, none of these twists are actually surprising, and they simply cloud the film's focus. Additionally, Halim and Siega don't quite trust Kimberly themselves. They want her to be pure evil, but they also want to make her appealing; and so they justify her with an unnecessary backstory and rotten parents. We meet her volatile, mad-dog dad (James Woods) and his latest trophy wife (Jaime King), and we learn about her busy, aloof mother.

Consider the brilliantly constructed J.D. (Christian Slater) in Heathers or Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in Clueless and how unapologetic they were about their personalities. We don't need any kind of silly explanation as to how they got that way; we like them because of their flaws. The filmmakers don't trust us to follow Kimberly the same way. But Pretty Persuasion doesn't stop there. The rest of the characters similarly fall apart. Creators of bad high school movies usually grind down the adult characters' IQs so that the teen characters can appear smarter, and Pretty Persuasion is no exception. It turns out that the teacher in question is indeed attracted to teen girls, but he satisfies his cravings by dressing up his sexy wife (Selma Blair) in a gray school-uniform skirt. Yet the filmmakers don't know whether to congratulate him or make fun of him.

Most of the problem behind this misshapen lump of a movie is that the director Siega comes from a long line of music-video and TV directors who can't comprehend how to sustain a feature film. If only these filmmakers could think back further than three minutes and remember how teens really think and feel, then we might have something.

Pretty Persuasion (Unrated, 104 min.), directed by Marcos Siega, written by Skander Halim, photographed by Ramsey Nickell and starring Evan Rachel Wood, James Woods, and Adi Schnall, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the August 24-30, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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