Accusing teacher of harassment, teenage girl wreaks havoc at her Hollywood high school
Evan Rachel Wood pulls out all the stops in “Pretty Persuasion.” Teen sexuality is a filmmaking mainstay, whether it’s the passively seductive saunter of the title character of “Lolita” or Christina Ricci’s Dede Truitt in “The Opposite of Sex, ” whipping off her bikini top to see if she can tempt her gay brother’s boy-toy companion.
In “Pretty Persuasion,” Kimberly Joyce (Wood) combines her prurient talents and devious mind to manipulate just about everyone in her orbit to get what she wants.
At first, what Kimberly wants is fleeting––one day, a spot on a tawdry teen television program––but as “Pretty Persuasion” progresses, she spins a malicious web that satisfies a deep-seated need for revenge.
While a somewhat popular student at her elite Beverly Hills private high school, she presents a complex morass of resentment, confidence, libido, curiosity and intelligence. On an IQ test, she fills in the dots with an expletive and breaks the computer. When she meets Randa, a Middle Eastern girl, she shows her around the school and keeps reminding Randa, “I’m a nice person,” while saying some rather dreadful things to her new acquaintance about fellow students and the world in general. Later, when Kimberly needs to get the media on her side, she seduces an overeager newscaster (Jane Krakowski) with a line from a cheesy porn movie featuring girl-on-girl sex: “I like cock too much to give it up, but sometimes, I need a woman’s touch.”
“Pretty Persuasion” presents people as dominoes that Kimberly is setting up to topple when she needs to. No one is spared, it seems.
When the time is right, she drags her friends Brittany and new satellite Randa into a scheme to accuse their drama teacher of sexual harassment. Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston) is innocent of the charges leveled at him, but several scenes make clear that he does, in his heart, lust for his teenage students. Elsewhere on the canvas director Marcos Siega paints, people are knee-deep in classism, homophobia and general stupidity. It’s no wonder that Kimberly ultimately identifies with a student who shoots up a similar school, showing no guilt for anything she’s done.
But Kimberly is more than just talk. She gets her jollies from a clueless boyfriend she hates and disrespects. She is willing to fellate the fellow though, when she needs his lawyer father to help her plans along.
“Pretty Persuasion” skillfully contrasts the morals of a society that punishes free expression of ideas in public but cannot do anything about bigotry at the dinner table. Kimberly’s anti-Semitic father carries on about the Jews ad nauseum, but a remark about “a shyster lawyer,” is enough to get Kimberly booted from the school’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
In the hilarious opening dialogue, Randa politely listens as Kimberly tells her, “If I couldn’t be a white woman, I would be Asian, then, African American, but I would want Caucasian features.” When Randa shows no horror, Kimberly next informs her how horrible it would be to live life as an Arab woman. The point here seems to be that if served up with just the right smile, almost any ugly statement can be digested by most people. Undercutting our peers by indulging in backstabbing has become both entertainment and everyday sport, something we’ve been fed by our culture since “All About Eve” but which has now become increasingly perfected with each new reality TV show.
As unpleasant as the proceedings are, there are many funny performances here. Danny Comden, as Roger, the fellow teacher who somehow convinces Mr. Anderson to let him be his defense attorney, is hilariously inept; he’s passed the bar but learned everything he knows from “Perry Mason” re-runs. James Woods is absolutely wonderful as Kimberly’s ranting, sleazy father, a man so unhinged by his hatred of Jews that he is convinced his subordinates at work are coughing in Yiddish code right under his nose.
A first-rate script and spot-on performances make “Pretty Persuasion” a movie that should not be missed, a nice alternative to a summer filled with aliens, superheroes and a terrifying array of explosions. Be aware that even a repeat viewing doesn’t completely reveal the fascinating enigma that is Kimberly Joyce.