I know that James Woods isn’t the lead of Pretty Persuasion, but he’s definitely the star in the five or so scenes that he gets. He plays the protagonist’s father, a racist, sexist, neglectful father to Kimberly (Evan Rachel Woods). His scenes involve many rants about how everyone except someone in his position — a wealthy, white, American male — and then turning them around and explaining that these aren’t things that he wants his daughter saying. After all, she goes to an exclusive private school, where even the slightest remark can get you kicked out of the drama club.
Kimberly is smart enough to know that her father’s insane, so she keeps herself in check. This girl apparently broke school records with her IQ test, and that comes through in her dialogue. Her vocabulary is impeccable, and the cool demeanor she keeps shows us that she always knows what to do in any given situation. She always gives off the appearance that she has a plan, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else does about it; she’ll outsmart you almost instantly and the plan will come to fruition. She’s like Tracy Flick, except she’s most certainly the lead. She might be smarter, too.
Kimberly has two female friends at this school, a new student named Randa (Adi Schnall), who is taken under her wing since she’s new in the country and obviously needs the social help. There’s also Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois), who is now dating Kimberly’s former boyfriend. They’ve remained friends anyway, and they even have a secret handshake. “The best of friends,” we’re told. The only other important character comes in the form of the English/Drama teacher at the school, Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston), who is suitably creepy in the role.
The story eventually hinges on a courtroom battle between Mr. Anderson and the three girls, who decide one night to come forward with sexual assault allegations against their teacher. Are they warranted? We’re not initially sure. There are a couple of situations in which the girls might have been assaulted, but the filmmakers choose to hide them in order to keep the ambiguity for as long as possible. Mr. Anderson certainly has dark thoughts in his mind, but whether he acted on them or not is something that the court will have to settle.
Pretty Persuasion tries to balance being a black comedy, a satire, and a drama. It’s not entirely successful — certain elements come through more often than others, and some of them fall flat — but it’s ambitious and I did laugh quite frequently throughout. It deals with a ton of issues in American culture, using its super intelligent character, her Arab sidekick and racist father to do so. I’m almost surprised that Randa and James Woods’ character never came face to face, but maybe a line was drawn somewhere.
I don’t think that the movie is mean spirited, but the characters within it certainly were. In trying to make a point, the writers of these characters very possibly are going to turn away some members of the audience. There is a lot of seemingly racial hatred in Pretty Persuasion, and while it was over-the-top and done for comedic effect, it was also occasionally grating and unnecessary. I don’t necessarily object to it, but I know people who do and wouldn’t even consider sitting through a movie like this. Just be aware.
The final twist was also a bit of a letdown, just like a major point that preceded it was. Both were supposed to be major dramatic events, but both fell kind of flat. I was done with the story when it should have ended, but the film continued to press on, unnecessarily. Looking back on it, I can see what the filmmakers were going for with this ending sequence, but it doesn’t have the poignancy that you’d expect if you were to just read about it.
Admittedly, it’s kind of hard to actually root for anyone in this film. It’s intriguing, yes, but everyone is so mean and spiteful or downright creepy that if something bad happens to them, it’s difficult to be too upset. This is a movie in which you like the actors and you like the characters as a result of that, but the characters themselves aren’t endearing in any way, and if played by unknown actors, you might find yourself despising them.
Then again, the dialogue is so sharp and the targets so numerous that it’s possible you’d be engaged anyway. Pretty much anyone that the film deems as “wrong” is going to be a target in this film, and it’s enjoyable to see the methods that it uses to take shots at them. The constant flashbacks also help to hold your interest, as certain events were obscured earlier, and the flashbacks reveal to you just what actually happened. Of course, maybe there’s an unreliable narrator thrown in as well. That’s always a possibility.
Pretty Persuasion is a good film but isn’t as smart or clever as it wants to be, and is also a bit too mean-spirited for some audience members. But if you’re not bothered by near-constant racial slurs and insults aimed at all groups of people, then you’ll find a sharp satire that’s consistently funny and will make you laugh with its social commentary, led by a strong performance by Evan Rachel wood and a scene-stealing one turned in by James Woods.