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To Die From: Marcos Siega’s “Pretty Persuasion”

To Die From: Marcos Siega's "Pretty Persuasion"

For all the critics lamenting the turn to all-style/no-substance MTV aesthetics, former music video veteran Marcos Siega‘s “Pretty Persuasion” could have done well with a stylistic shot in the arm. Producing deft, relevant social satire is tricky enough without leaden direction weighing it down, especially when that satire is aimed at the frothy and fundamentally content-free microcosm of Los Angeles teen privilege. Films such as “Clueless” and “Election” (to which “Pretty Persuasion” owes its well-intentioned roots, even if it fails to flower) succeed on repeat viewings for precisely the same reasons “Pretty Persuasion” fails on its first and serves to make its white-trash cinematic cousin “Wild Things” seem classy by comparison.

Lacking a steely central performance (a la Reese Witherspoon‘s eerily perky slow burn in “Election”) or a headfirst plunge into kinky camp (as in “Wild Things”: come for the catfight, stay for full frontal Bacon), “Pretty Persuasion” is left with an undercooked tale of petty teen revenge to equally petty ends against a prep school Prof. who digs dressing up his girlfriend in schoolgirl garb. If only this aimless 15-minutes-of-fame tale really would last a scant 15 minutes.

More Madonna than Machiavelli, Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood, chalking up another uninspired entry in her “kids these days” file) spends her days manipulating her pliable friends Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois, looking like she wandered off the set of “Pleasantville“) and Randa (Adi Schnall), a Middle-Eastern exchange student with all the fish-out-of-water-and-into-Evian trappings, including pop-culture ignorance and a grating sense of morality. Kimberly’s equally empty nights are spent wallowing in the bigoted tirades of her horn-dog Father (James Woods) and accusing her trophy stepmother (James King) of fellating the family dog over pricey takeout.

After Kimberly’s dreams of launching her (yawn) acting career by playing Anne Frank in a school production (a role that even she is quick to admit she received only because she was the lone brunette in a sea of blonde candidates) are quashed by a teacher (Ron Livingston) who overhears her neo-Nazi ranting, Kimberly convinces her friends to cry sexual abuse and then proceeds to sleep her way to sympathetic press with a female reporter covering the trial. Surely you must be thinking that such a series of tedious manipulations orchestrated by a lowest-common-denominator Lolita would build to some climatic end to justify the meanness, but you would be wrong.

Evan Rachel Wood, Adi Schnall and Elisabeth Harnois in “Pretty Persuasion,” directed by Marcos Siega. Photo credit: Alan Markfield.

I’m sure Kimberly Joyce would agree that there’s nothing less attractive than someone trying too hard, and “Pretty Persuasion,” above all its many faults, simply tries too hard to be topical. Truly great satire pushes buttons as frequently as it exposes social truths, urges us to laugh at ourselves, our biases, question our (occasionally blind) allegiances to constructions of such things as race, class, religion, and sexuality. The closest “Pretty Persuasion” gets to provocative commentary on any of these subjects (and it does take pains to comment on them all, however glib and sparse that commentary might be) could perhaps be summed up by one of the paternal platitudes offered up by Kimberly’s father: “There is a difference between bona fide racism and speaking the truth.” We’re meant to cringe. Bristle. At the very least cluck our tongues in disappointment. “Pretty Persuasion” never manages to present either with any bite or conviction. With PC standards as defunct as they currently are (ground down far more efficiently by the likes of “South Park”) and “truth” a laughable concept in a fictional universe where a student of the Paris Hilton School of Celebrity can so easily make pawns out of the population, the film leans too heavily on its indie-friendly cast to lend a bit of street cred to its belated insight on an America that’s soooo five minutes ago.

Didn’t we already see a joke of a molestation trial this summer? Haven’t we had ample examples of the modes and means by which the media spins itself into such a dizzy state of frenzied reporting that accuracy becomes secondary to titillation? Can we really claim that portraying Arab-Americans as gun happy in the name of familial honor is any more progressive than insinuating that they might be potential terrorists? Have we really been hoodwinked into believing that it takes an iota of intelligence, much less a Rube Goldbergian strategy, to transform oneself into a Z-list celebrity?

The questions “Pretty Persuasion” seeks to raise are not those it accidentally answers. It muses on how far some of us will go for a bit of the spotlight that seems so wide and bright in the era of reality television, only for viewers to come to the easy conclusion that those who arrive there are often more pathetic than they are intriguing, or intriguing precisely because they’re pathetic. The film paints a vile portrait of the self-importance created by the synthetic pairing of money and beauty, though far from establishing this as a crisis, it holds its subjects up as shining examples of “human complexity” while lovingly lighting their flawless complexions. Bringing shallowness to new depths (or heights, as the case might be) is hardly a challenge, nor is it a fruitful endeavor in the era of E!

[ Suzanne Scott is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. ]

Take 2
By Kristi Mitsuda

“Pretty Persuasion” has its flaws, but I love it just fine in its fucked-up imperfection. Sure, its dime-store psychology (the protagonist suffers from an unoriginal and glossed-over missing-mommy syndrome), wasteful and distracting casting of Selma Blair, and vaguely unsatisfying ending bother, but I relished its deliciously offensive, gut-busting humor from start to finish. Writer Skander Halim throws hot-button topics — an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink jumble of high school politics and celebrity obsession inclusive of concomitant race, class, and gender issues — into a blender and serves them straight up, while director Marcos Siega ascribes a wickedly compelling vibe. Though the movie draws from obvious influences — the black hilarity of “Heathers” and “To Die For” come readily to mind — it has a specific voice all its own.

James Woods and Evan Rachel Wood in “Pretty Persuasion,” directed by Marcos Siega. Photo credit: Alan Markfield.

Its twisted allure can be attributed in large part to the efforts of its cast, most significantly a captivating turn by Evan Rachel Wood. While evidence of her preternatural talent could be found in “Thirteen,” it’s her performance here that convinces me she’s on her way to greatness. Sound-bite-ready and far too savvy for her years, her warped anti-heroine Kimberly firmly carries the picture, expounding heinous opinions full of cringe-inducing zingers and employing the occasional naïve blankness to mask a daunting brilliance. The aspiring actress oozes self-awareness from the moment we meet her at an audition, her derision for the two knuckle-head casting directors detectable beneath a compliant utterance of inane dialogue. Wood makes believable an unfathomable character, so much so that when she remarks, “It’s like the whole word is an orchestra, and I’m the conductor,” it comes off as a statement of fact rather than the deluded boasting of a teenager.

The characterization of her most visible victim, Mr. Anderson, is both muddled and intriguing. On the one hand, the film asks that we sympathize with the falsely accused English teacher, and, on the other, it makes apparent that while he may not be a criminal leach, an idiotic and inappropriate leach he remains nonetheless. This detail adds a fascinating dimension to the usual pop-cultural procession sounding out sexual harassment.

[ Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick. ]

Take 3
By Michael Joshua Rowin

A writer-director team of talent might have concocted a film of delicious, acidic humor to take on our modern maladies: self-absorbed parents, passive-aggressive bigotry, media feeding-frenzies, the dwindling taboos of teenage sexuality. But Skander Halim and Marcos Siega are not that team. Not even close. For all its attempts at dark satire, “Pretty Persuasion” is oddly moralistic, only going so far in its ridiculous caricatures and hit-you-over-the-head dialogue to make the daring point that youngsters, as products of dysfunctional households, will often–gasp!–resort to cruelty to gain attention. There are simply no connections made in “Pretty Persuasion,” although Muslim culture and the Iraq War, topics rarely broached directly in mainstream fare, get tossed into the mix with little care and are tackled only superficially. Kimberly’s brother was a soldier killed in the war. Does this account for Kimberly’s condescending, exploitative relationship to Middle-Eastern exchange student Randa? Her father’s descent into racism, drugs, and negligence? “Pretty Persuasion” never bothers to explore even these rudimentary questions and instead devotes energy to stock characters and phlegmatic drama thinly masking a very obvious desire to titillate.

Oh, the shallowness of it all. But maybe shallow times seek shallow measures. News outlets, becoming more and more like infotainment, use debacles like the Michael Jackson trial to uphold morality, all the while ignoring Darfur and Baghdad; “Pretty Persuasion” is a minor version of the same hypocrisy, addressing Important Issues via sensationalist, manipulative means whilst chastising its protagonist for the destructiveness of her sensationalist, manipulative behavior. The film’s final sequence neatly summarizes the unintentional contradiction that renders it a defanged wolf: Kimberly cries while watching herself in the soft-core hack-job–no more phony and offensive than “Pretty Persuasion”–that initially inspired her pernicious plot. Kimberly’s tears are crocodilian ones of Hollywood self-pity.

[ Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He has written for the Independent, Film Comment, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon. ]

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