There are movies about twins and there are movies about switching identities and there is “The Pretty One,” which uses both conceits for its tale of self and lack thereof. And to be fair, the premise of this quirky Tribeca comedic drama — that’s ultimately much more affecting and genuinely melancholy than you’d expect — is a little cutesy and cloying on the surface. And admittedly, the picture takes some time to find its bearings.
Written and directed by first-time feature-length filmmaker Jenée LaMarque, actress Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks,” “Meek’s Cutoff“) performs double duty in “The Pretty One” as two twins, Laurel and Audrey. Laurel, the sweet one, is painfully shy and awkward. Neglectful of her appearance, the 20-something has no sense of style and her hair borders on unkempt. On the flipside of the coin there’s Audrey, the fabulous, sexy and outgoing version of Audrey who’s successful, confident and doesn’t live at home taking care of her father (John Carroll Lynch) like Laurel does.
A birthday party for the twins brings the whole family together and Laurel is all too aware that the stylish, independent and dynamic Audrey is the life of the party and the center of attention (including the object of desire for the boy who has recently deflowered her). Audrey declares to her dad that she’s tired of watching Laurel act in place of their long-deceased mother and wants to take her away to go live with her. But before the plan can be fulfilled, tragedy strike in a car accident and Audrey is killed.
Traumatized and confused, Laurel — who conveniently has just had a Audrey-like makeover before the family catastrophe — is mistaken for Audrey by the family and the doctors and when she finally realizes she is alive, and not the twin sister that she adored and idolized, she in a rash decision seizes upon an opportunity to reinvent herself. Posing as Audrey, Laurel goes to her own funeral and then becomes fully committed to the role when she registers a lack of grief from her family and community.
Angered, she jumps on a plane to take on Audrey’s life as a real estate agent in what feels like a part of East L.A., where she begins to discover who her sister is (having an affair with a married man played by Ron Livingston) and finding herself drawn closer and closer to her tenant Basel (Jake Johnson), who Audrey evidently despised and tried to evict.
It’s up until this point that “The Pretty One,” while entertaining, feels a little too jejune and facile — two polar opposite sisters each with a one-note costume-like persona and a silly car-wreck occurrence that inelegantly and conveniently throws the plot in motion. But as “The Pretty One” begins to plant the roots of its true story and drop the broad comedic conceits of its kind of silly premise, it begins to blossom into a genuinely sweet, charming and funny tale of identity lost and found. Not to mention possesses a sweet love story at its core as well as some authentically moving sequences about family, loved-ones and what they mean to us.
Zoe Kazan, for one, has a complicating balancing act to pull off and she’s actually performing three roles: Laurel, Audrey and who Laurel thinks Audrey is when she’s trying to play her in front of her confused friends. And the nuances of dipping back and forth between the three roles is rather amazing to watch, as is observing the character weigh her mourning and loss with the wondrous awakening of discovering a new life on her own.
Effortlessly appealing, Jake Johnson is absolutely playful and charming as Audrey’s rakish, but caring tenant Basel of whom she begins to fall in love with. And as Laurel/Audrey’s father, John Carroll Lynch gets the meatiest role he’s had since “Fargo,” and he’s absolutely terrific in it, doing some captivating and genuine emotional work in the film’s latter half.
Set in the once upon a time of nowhere (though it does feel like neighborhood-y L.A. meets the outskirts of suburban California), “The Pretty One” employs a storybook quality. Aesthetically, it’s part fairy tale, part dollhouse fable with a gauzy, dreamy score by Julian Wass — think Michael Andrews (who is also included in the soundtrack), Au Revoir Simone or something out of a Miranda July film (making some clever nods to movies about masquerading under new identities, the closing credits utilizes a cover of “It Might Be You,” the theme song to “Tootsie”). But it would be reductive and unfair to say LaMarque is aping her style from July. Her aspirations are less opaquely arty and she has a strong command of style, balancing well with genuine emotion.
While uneven in its opening and arguably the serious, sad, and moving second half of the film is slightly tonally at odds with its quirkier beginning, “The Pretty One” is still an engaging and sweet little first feature. Writer/director LaMarque certainly has a confident voice and she’s a lovely new discovery that we’ll likely see more of as she continues to grow and hone her craft. She pulls some amazing performances out of these actors and has a real sense for mood, tone and style, so it will be interesting to watch and see what she comes up with next. [B]