Pretty Persuasion

Marcos Siega, 2005

My recent review of of the twisted teen nightmare Excision reminded me it was about time I finally sat down and watched a movie that I’d never got around to checking out, Marcos Siega’s Pretty Persuasion. I’d initially been drawn to it thanks to a headlining role from the always dependable Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen, True Blood) and a darkly comic ’high school is hell’ theme in the vein of Election and Heathers, but almost dismissed it after some extremely mixed critical response and a legacy all but forgotten.

What can I say, I’m an idiot. This movie is fantastic.

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The devil wears a grey skirt.

Wood stars as Kimberly Joyce, who along with her friends Randa (Adi Schnall) and Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) launch a sexual assault case against their drama teacher (Ron Livingston, Swingers) at their prestigious private school in Beverly Hills, attempting to exact revenge for a series of slights against them. Local reporter Emily Klein (Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock) is drawn from her insubstantial assignment at the school to take advantage of the drama on camera as it unfolds. The girls band together to get themselves through this mess, with no help at all from Kimberly’s openly racist, pill-popping father (James Woods, Videodrome) and a boyfriend she can barely stand (Mike Erwin).

What happens from there is an unusually clever, sharply plotted take on a fairly simple setup, with the story unfolding in flashbacks and alternating perspectives as the truth of the situation becomes progressively clearer, the true depths of the girls’ deception and the muddled reality of the situation eventually drifting into focus. The film flits between high school plots and courtroom theatrics in a way that makes it feel effortless, while still finding time for a bit more besides. Much like its centre-stage villain, it’s quite the piece of work.

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Casual racism and crimes against dog-kind. Acceptable table talk at the Joyce household.

This is a movie where no-one comes out clean on the other side. Characters are revealed to be corrupting, self-centred and resolutely mercenary, perfectly happy to use each other for their own ends. None more so than Kimberly, whose endless machinations give the film its direction and drive, with a fiendish performance from Evan Rachel Wood that lets the material soar. High school stories are seldom shy about serving us a Queen Bitch archetype, but with Kimberly Joyce we’re given an absolute monster.

I mentioned during Excision the impressive ways the writer offered the audience its offensive material, and here it’s a similar story, though this time the shockers are verbal in nature. The dialogue is frequently openly nasty, with a penchant towards the cruel, the racially charged and the explicitly sexual, with a punishing amount of audacious scenes that somehow scrape by on the strength of their punchlines. It’s hardly a surprise this struggled to find an audience, as beneath the relatively bright & breezy exterior is a film that would likely prove far too dark for a typical teen moviegoer. Though there are times the film struggles to show any hint of a heart at all, there’s just enough humanity to keep you committed through to the expertly handled ending.

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The “this is SO going in the review” shot of the day.

Pretty Persuasion is a thrilling, unsettling look into the darker side of high school life, a teen movie tailored to those who’ve already survived to tell the tale. This is Cruel Intentions with the kid gloves off, a bracingly offensive kick to the genre. Daringly written and often hilarious, the true crime here is how it still hasn’t taken its place alongside its peers as a tragicomic classic.

 

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