Pretty Persuasion Movie Review

In a time when the collected works of Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan have looked like they could suck out whatever feeble life is left in the high school film, along comes a black-hearted piece of nastiness like Pretty Persuasion to remind us that, yes, nothing can simultaneously shock and entertain quite so well as a teenager let loose.

It must be said that things don't begin well, however, with its focus the film's star bitch, 15-year-old Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood), who looks to be the queen of her snotty private high school in Beverly Hills. Appearing at first to be the result of some hideous experiment whereby Reese Witherspoon's Election spunk and drive was spliced with the power-lusting evil of at least a couple of the Heathers, Kimberly soon shows herself to be an entirely different sort of villain. In the process of escorting a quiet new Arab student, Randa Azzouni (Adi Schnall), around campus and explaining to her the facts of life and a clinical cost/benefit analysis of the two of them being friends (Randa gets to hang out with one of the school's stars, while Kimberly thinks she looks prettier standing next to Randa), Kimberly drops in this little nugget, "I have respect for all races. But I'm really happy to have been born white." She then proceeds to list, in descending order, the races she would prefer to be, and then patiently explains to Randa - in her flat, rational, almost toneless voice - exactly why Arab would be her last choice ("No offence.").

A lesser actress than Wood could never have even hoped to pull this scene off. Any flicker of humanity or deviation in tone would have made it seem ridiculous that even a shy girl like Randa, in her long skirt and hijab, would have stood for Kimberly's wildly offensive speech for a moment. But Wood is so immaculately serene and patient that it makes her insidious indoctrination of Randa - it's not long before she's being schooled in bulimia - not to mention the diabolical plot that it leads up to, seems almost normal. She's even able to convincingly persuade people that she's not racist after a virulent anti-Semitic outburst. This ability is why it's so easy for Kimberly to rope her best friend Britanny Wells (Elisabeth Harnois) and Randa into a campaign of revenge against one of their teachers, Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston), whom they all hate for different reasons. The idea is simple enough: make up a story about Mr. Anderson molesting them and watch the sparks fly; easy enough since there's already a local news reporter (the extremely blonde Jane Krakowski) doing a color piece on the school and just dying for some dirt, not to mention the fact that Mr. Anderson is more than a little pervy anyway. Not surprisingly, everything goes pretty horribly for everyone involved, with cold-eyed Kimberly as perky puppetmaster: "It's like I'm a conductor and the whole world is my orchestra."

Having created such a perfectly diabolical and seductive predator as Kimberly, though, the film can seem overly infatuated with its creation and so sometimes falters when the focus shifts away, with the other characters divided up almost entirely into fools and victims. But the lengths to which the script is willing to go by its extremely downbeat ending (no prom here) ends up justifying this approach. From the opening scene, in which two oafish and leering producers audition Kimberly for their teen TV show, to those in which we witness the tyrannical bile of Kimberly's hateful father (James Woods, absolutely unhinged), it's clear that Pretty Persuasion isn't just another black comedy about a manipulative high school bitch, a la Heathers or even Jawbreaker, it's about the creation of a monster.

We're persuaded, we're persuaded!


Pretty Persuasion Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 2005


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