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Crueler intentions: ‘Pretty Persuasion’ offers social commentary, raunchy humor

By |2018-01-16T07:20:39-05:00September 8th, 2005|Entertainment|

If the entire world were to engage in a Darwin-style mental olympics there’s little doubt that Kimberly Joyce would be the last one standing.
Sure, if physical strength were factored in she might be at a disadvantage – she’s only 15, after all, and her private schooling in California’s 90210 zip code hasn’t exactly primed her for hand to hand combat. But she doesn’t need her hands to take every sorry bastard around her down. As far as she’s concerned, the bigger the heap of bodies, the better the view from her perch on top.
Kimberly Jones (Evan Rachel Wood) is the centerpiece of “Pretty Persuasion,” an uneven dark comedy set in the social world of teenagers, these ones too rich for their own good. Think “Election,” but less clever. Think “Mean Girls,” only way meaner. Think “Clueless” with more shock value. Think “Heathers” with no Christian Slater.
Kimberly is the school’s self-elected ice queen. Everything she does is calculated to her advantage, whether it’s befriending Randa (Adi Schnall) – a shy Middle Eastern student she introduces to porn and bulimia, blessing her best friend Brittany’s (Elisabeth Harnois) relationship with her ex-boyfriend, or organizing a multi-cultural food fair to raise money for the drama club – and, of course, to foster understanding among the diverse population at her high school.
Kimberly’s chance to shine brightest comes when she hatches a plan to sue an unliked teacher for sexual molestation. She pitches the idea to Randa and Brittany who all have an ax to grind when it comes to Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston, “Office Space”), and though he’s technically innocent of the crime the girls accuse him of, he’s hardly a sympathetic character.
Of course, the whole sordid plan is really just a ploy to help launch Kimberly’s acting career and she’ll stop at nothing, and sleep with anyone, in order to be famous.
One of her conquests is Emily (Jane Krakowski), a lesbian reporter covering the story of the harassment trial. Kimberly seduces Emily with, of all things, a line from a cheesy porn flick she watches the night before with Randa and Brittany. Emily becomes Kimberly’s biggest champion, praising her bravery on the nightly news.
The film is often quite funny and though many may take offense, no one is left unscathed in the film’s quest to shock. Kimberly tosses off comments that are intended to be shocking as if she were merely telling someone the time. “I have respect for all races,” she tells Randa before launching into a list of what other races she’d settle for if she couldn’t be white in order of preference. She also repeatedly accuses her step-mother of having sex with the family dog. Kimberly’s father (a stand out performance by James Woods), is a racist homophobe obsessed with his work and doesn’t have the parenting skills to notice, let alone discipline, his daughter.
There are a few laugh out loud moments, like when Mr. Anderson jumps up to object to Randa’s courtroom testimony. He’s not objecting to her allegations of molestation, but her word choice. “I would never say ‘boobs,’ I’m an English teacher!” he says. “Breasts… I would say breasts.”
The film unravels when it pushes too hard to make its social satire message clear. It tries to tie in too much – the Iraq war, racism, homophobia, sexism, Columbine-style high school shootings, parental neglect, drug use, and teenage sex – using too little.
Randa’s fate is a good example. Throughout the film she acts as a comic foil, her bumbling innocence playing the straight man to Kimberly’s knowing manipulation. But in the film’s final moments humor takes a backseat to the deadly serious. The plot comes together, but the film comes apart. It is Evan Rachel Wood’s icily perfect performance that makes this film persuasive at all.
“Fame is overrated.” Kimberly tells Brittany. “It’s so fleeting, you know?” Evan Rachel Wood is poised to test the claims of the character that may well make her a star.

About the Author:

D'Anne Witkowski is a writer living in Michigan with her wife and son. She has been writing about LGBTQ+ politics for nearly two decades. Follow her on Twitter @MamaDWitkowski.
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